The Part-Time College Job

One often hears about stressed and stretched and over-scheduled college students, but every survey I’ve seen, including those issued by National Survey of Student Engagement (Indiana University) and the Higher Education Research Institute (at UCLA) shows dismayingly low levels of study time and academic engagement among undergraduates.
Another one came out the other day. It’s the summary of the Spring 2008 survey of undergraduates in the entire University of California system, produced by the Center for Studies in Higher Education at Berkeley. The report appears here.
The survey received more than 63,000 completed questionnaires (a response rate of 39 percent) that showed how students spend their time in an average week. Its 48 pages document, among other things, yet another body of evidence against the notion of the six-hours-of-homework-per-day-student. Here is the summary of time use breakdowns:

“Overall, respondents reported spending the more time on various social and leisure activities (41 hours/week) than academic activities, including attending and preparing for class (28 hours/week). Work and family obligations (12 hours/ week) and co-curricular activities (6 hours/week) take up less time. Although work and family obligations are often thought to interfere with academic pursuits, they account for only about a third of the time each week that the average student devotes to social and leisure activities.”
If we break “attending and preparing for class down,” we get an average of 15.5 hours of in-class (or in-lab) time, leaving only 12.8 hours of “Academic activities outside of class”—homework, library research, take-home tests, etc.
There were some divisions by field. Kids in the humanities/arts logged only 11.9 hours, while physical science and engineering students came in at 15.1 hours. Social science students came in last with 11.5 hours per week.
So, an English major taking a regular load of courses (and no labs) puts in around 26 hours per week listening to teacher and hitting the books–three-and-a-half hours per day. Call it a part-time job. For people who think that the UC student also has to hold down a real part-time job, the total of “Work Obligations” in the survey tallied only 7.6 hours per week.
That’s not the most troubling aspect of the report, however. It is, rather, that there doesn’t seem to be much difference, in general, between study time and academic outcomes. When the researchers compared study time to grades, low-performing students studied pretty much the same amount as high-performing students. Students with grades below 2.8, between 2.8 and 3.2, and between 3.2 and 3.6 all devoted a little less than 12 hours per week to homework. And those with 3.6 and higher rose only one hour to around 13 hours per week. In other words, as the report put it, “There is a surprisingly modest relationship between UC GPA and reported hours studying.”
What does that say about instruction in the UC system? Well, one thing is that professors are not designing syllabi and assignments that provide grading distinctions based on the quantity of labor students put in. It also implies that the UC environment doesn’t impart well the message to students that they must consider their undergraduate years a full-time job. Instead, students believe something else, namely, that they are doing just fine: “Students from all backgrounds reported that their analytical and critical thinking skills increased dramatically between their freshmen and senior years,” and “Women and men reported very good or excellent analytical and critical thinking abilities by their senior year.”
Remember the Eastern European joke about wages under communism, “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us”? Perhaps there is an undergraduate counterpart: “We pretend to study and they pretend to grade us.”


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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