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Cross-posted from Education Week

There was an interesting article in the New York Times the other day by Catherine Rampell on “Why Students Leave the Engineering Track.”  She had found a table in the most recent National Science Foundation’s report on Science and Engineering Indicators, showing that twice as many students enroll in college intending to become engineers as actually get degrees and enter the field.  This despite the attractive salaries engineers can earn right out of college. The Indicators report, of course, did not opine on the reasons for this enormous attrition rate, so Rampell interviewed Philip Babcock, an economist, to get more information. Babcock thinks the answer might have to do with how much more time engineering students have to put into their studies than other students–more than anyone else by far, even more than those going into the health field.  But what really caught my eye was his data showing that it was not always this way.

Back in 1961, engineers spent more time studying then they do now, but the time they put in was roughly equivalent to those going for degrees in the physical sciences, outpaced by those going into biology and greatly outdistanced by students going into the health field.  But here is what really blew me away:  Engineering is the only field in which students are not studying less than two-thirds of the time they studied in 1961!  That’s right.  In almost all fields the amount of study time in four-year colleges is less than two-thirds what it was when I graduated from college in 1961!

Put your hand up if you think that this is because today’s students are twice as smart as my class was and therefore need less time to prepare for their field.  Well…  Or put your hand up if you think that college professors are twice as good at teaching their subject as they were half a century ago, and therefore need only two-thirds the time to do as good a job as they did then.  Doubtful.  It is true that modern information technology makes research, writing and editing easier, but, as Babcock points out, not nearly to the extent that would be required to explain the precipitous fall in time spent studying.

What is going on here?  Things begin to fall into place when we consider that today’s college calendar has many fewer class days on it than it did in my day.  School starts later and ends earlier in the year.  And there are more vacation and other non-teaching days during the year.

Note also that there are fewer tenured professors to do the teaching.  One has to conclude that the money that goes to college tuition has been buying fewer instructors and less instruction.  But wait a minute!  College tuition has been rising faster than the cost of living for years on end.  How can this be?  Why does it take more and more money to purchase less and less instruction?

Maybe it is because neither American students nor American parents are interested in purchasing instruction.  Maybe all they are interested in is the credential.  It is, after all, the credential that gets the student his or her first job, not the education.  How do I know that?  Because the credential is all the prospective employer has to go by.  There is no score on a standardized test and few college graduates are asked to present their college research papers or even their grades to the recruiting agents for firms.  What counts is the degree.  Here’s an article telling us that college students spend very little time at all doing homework these days, because they know that all that counts is the degree and they can get the grades they need to get the degree they want without studying very much at all.

Increasingly, college-bound high school students are making up their minds about which college to apply to based on what students currently in college think of their institutions, as reported on various web sites, as well the US New and World Report rankings.  Both put a lot of weight on the experience of college-going, which means as a practical matter the quality of the food, the dorms and the recreation facilities.  So colleges have been in a knock-down drag-out frenzy to improve all that.  Which costs money—lots of it.  As I look at the numbers, the consumers are partly to blame for driving instruction out of the budget and increasing the cost of the “experience.”  Is it for this that the students are going into massive debt for years?  Is it for this that the American taxpayer will be paying for years to come?

Catherine Rampell concludes that students are bailing out of engineering school in part because they do not want to put in the time it takes to become an engineer.  When my older son was in engineering school, we were talking one Saturday afternoon and I asked him what he was doing.  He told me that he was in the library studying.  He had to do that, he said, because many of the Asian engineering students were there studying and, if he wasn’t there with them, he would fall behind them and have to drop out.  He hung in there and became an engineer and did very well.

It used to be that the students from other countries who came here to study stayed, like so many immigrants before them, and, in the process, helped to make the United States the economic power house we know so well.  But now they are going home after they get their degrees, because the opportunities in their home countries have improved enormously.  One might say that their function now is to keep American students out of engineering.  Why?  Because American students don’t want to work as hard as they work at studying engineering.

Some analysts have speculated that American college students aren’t spending much time studying because they have to work while in college to pay rising college costs.  But Babcock, in an article he did for AEI, says the data does not support that theory.  What the data tells him is that it is much more likely that the students place a higher value on increased leisure than on more study time.  Knowing that they really don’t have to work very hard at their studies to get their tickets punched, they just want to relax in college and have a good time.

Academically Adrift taught us that close to half of our college students make “no significant improvement in learning” in the first two years of college and found the same to be true of more then a third of our students for the whole four years of college. This should not surprise us.  Students spend less time in class than their predecessors and much less time studying outside of class.  What is quite maddening is that it is costing them, their parents and the nation much more money than it used to to provide this greatly diminished experience.  The students, as I explained earlier, are simply responding to the incentives they are facing.  So are the colleges.  If we want their behavior to change, then we have to change the incentives they face.

If employers actually want students who can do more of what the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) measures, they will have to signal that to students by taking scores on the CLA or similar standardized assessment into account in their hiring decisions.  When they do that, the effects will ripple all the way back to the decisions students make about which college to attend, and that will change colleges’ investments and academic policies.  When students find out that they have to actually learn something to get their tickets punched, they will be much more interested in learning something.  T’was ever thus.