According to Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks, college students’ weekly study time fell by 40% between 1961 and 2003.  The research is forthcoming in the Review of Economics and Statistics, but here‘s a very readable popularization.  Their basic findings:

In 1961, the average full-time student at a four-year college in the United States studied about twenty four hours per week, while his modern counterpart puts in only fourteen hours per week–a whopping ten-hour decline… [T]he trend… is not explained by differences in the wording of survey questions, is clearly visible across a dozen separate data sets, and does not appear to be driven by changes in the composition of the college-going population over time. Study time fell for students from all demographic subgroups, for students who worked and those who did not, within every major, and at four-year colleges of every type, degree structure, and level of selectivity.

Interesting details:

  • Students are spending most of their extra time having fun:

[N]ot only [are] college students are studying less than they used to, but… the vast majority of the time they once devoted to studying is now being allocated to leisure activities, rather than paid work.

  • Rising female enrollment isn’t the reason:

[W]omen in recent cohorts studied more than men and that study time fell dramatically for both women and men.

  • Neither is rising wealth:

[A]dvantaged students from educated families appear to study more than other students. This, too, casts doubt on the theory that increased wealth and advantage have caused lower study time.

Fascinating, but there’s one striking fact in the original research that’s neglected in the popularization: The return to a college education is much higher in the lazy present than it was in the studious days of yore.

[A] “year” of college, as commonly used in wage regressions, would appear to be a nominal measure of time, the value of which has eroded. If full-time college attendance requires a smaller time investment than it once did, then the recent increases in the return to college may be larger than was previously thought.

Babcock and Marks could reply, of course, that the return to college would have been even greater if schools had maintained standards.  But the more natural inference is that studying is mostly wasteful signaling.  If one student cuts his effort by 40%, he gets low grades and looks bad.  But students in general can still cut their effort by 40% without noticeably impairing their future productivity in the real world.

P.S. Babcock and Marks admit that some key facts fit the signaling model, but strangely fail to take their own admissions seriously.  Further discussion coming soon.