Professors Teaching Less, Students Studying Less

Richard Vedder

Richard Vedder is the nation’s foremost authority on college costs and productivity. His op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today is a devastating indictment of U.S. higher education. Compared to a half century ago, college professors are teaching less, students are studying less, and the ratio of administrators to faculty has soared.

He makes several points, some of which we’ve highlighted on Bacon’s Rebellion and bear repeating, and some of which we have overlooked:

Students studying less. College students today don’t study as hard as in generations past. According to surveys of student work habits, the average time spent in class and studying is about 27 hours a week. That compares to 40 hours weekly in the mid-20th century.

Grade inflation. Grade inflation is one reason why students work don’t as hard. The average grade today is a B to B+ compared to C+ to B- in 1960. When As and Bs are handed out like candy, students don’t see the need to buckle down. As Vedder points out, learning takes time, and the diminution of effort means college students are learning less. (A few disciplines such as engineering and medicine are exceptions.)

Faculty teaching less. The typical professor spends one-third fewer hours in class today than in 1965. Thus, more professors are needed to teach the same number of students.

Socially useless “research.” Much of professorial research has little value. Writes Vedder: “In English (literary criticism), the volume of research is immense — but little of it is often cited or even read.” Why reduce teaching loads to write papers no on reads?

Administrative bloat. In the 1970s, the typical faculty-to-staff ratio was roughly two-to-one. Today administrators outnumber professors.

Undoubtedly, these national trends apply to Virginia higher ed. The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) has documented the surge in administrative staff, but no one collects data on average teaching load — seemingly an easy exercise. The under-employment rate of Virginia college grads should be relatively easy to collect as well. Grade inflation and student work habits likely would be harder to document.

The cost crisis in higher-ed today is largely a productivity crisis. The crisis can’t be papered over with bigger state appropriations and more financial aid.

Virginia colleges and universities are holding back tuition increases this year, a responsive to generous General Assembly incentives, but underlying productivity issues remain. I’ve always been skeptical of blunt-force-trauma approaches such as tuition caps. But there is no reason why the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) can’t update basic productivity measures such as staff-to-faculty ratios and average faculty hours taught. Feed the statistics to higher-ed board members, and then ask them to do their jobs and ask the tough questions.

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17 responses to “Professors Teaching Less, Students Studying Less

  1. Actually, I think it is far more accurate to say that we at Bacon’s Rebellion have written in far greater detail about all of Richard Vedder’s points expressed in the WSJ, each and every one. So no one here or in the business of higher education should be at all surprised by the facts expressed in Professor Vedder’s article.

    Indeed, it is also fair to say that most everyone seriously employed in higher education, and/or a student of the issues here, knows the truth of what Professor says in his article and has for decades. These statistics have been published again and again, many of them since the 1980s. The real problem is that most of those responsible don’t give a damn, or lack the courage, or ability to fix the problems if they do give a damn, because they will suffer professionally if they try. That’s why I so often call the entire system of higher education in this nation systemically and chronically corrupt in most of the teaching and learning that goes on.

  2. So there are some counter-intuitive things associated with this dumbing down narrative:

    We now have more high level technology than we’ve ever had before, drones, self-driving cars, robots, artificial hips and knees, AI, facial recognition, and computers more powerful than IBM mainframes – in our hands, to name a few.

    So how can this be if we are “failing” in College and public school education?

  3. Hard sciences and engineering at top flight schools have always been typically excepted from claims of gross educational failures, although over past two decades there have been rising alarm bells that higher education corruption that has long infected higher education generally now also threatens, and is spilling over into, not only research within the hard sciences but also its applications, save for the fact that most all engineering cannot be fraudulently taught, or illicitly claimed for long by reason of testings and proofs. These exceptions, and qualifications, have been made plain here on BR, and by most all commentators, including Vedder’s WSJ article today.

  4. so… the few that are actually doing College “right” are carrying the load for the country and the others who are slackers don’t really matter anyhow? 😉

    We have if not the most powerful economy in the 21st century – certainly one of the top in the world so how bad can we really be?

    Oh – there are “problems” galore – and we sometimes seem obsessed without focusing on them – but at the end of the day – it’s undeniable that this country is very much a solid performer in the 21st century – even with a lot of sub-standard college slugs…

    Again – we’re at the half-glass full, half-glass empty part… We have LOTS of room for improvement but what we have right now is better than most countries on the planet.

  5. Back in the olden days, there was a general expectation that three hours of study for each hour of class time was needed to pass a course. Except,of course, for spring semester 1970.

    • That’s my recollection, except I remember two hours of study, not three. Five courses at 3 hours class time per course per week, plus six hours hours of study equaled 45 hours a week. Not every student lived up to that (most didn’t), but that was the expectation.

      When I went to graduate school in 1975-76, I was informed when I arrived that a minimum of 60 hours a week of classroom + study was expected.

    • Actually, the problem here is worse than Jim reports.

      The Vedder article says that:

      “Surveys of student work habits find that the average amount of time spent in class and otherwise studying is about 27 hours a week. The typical student takes classes only 32 weeks a year, so he spends fewer than 900 hours annually on academics—less time than a typical eighth-grader, and perhaps half the time their parents work to help finance college.

      It wasn’t always this way. As economists Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks have demonstrated, students in the middle of the 20th century spent nearly 50% more time—around 40 hours weekly—studying.”

      Hence, students used to study on average 40 hours a week IN ADDITION TO their time in in the classroom. Now its on 27 hours a week for both study and class room, according to Vedder’s article likely taken from pre-2010 studies included in Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa book Academically Adrift. These are figures I mentioned earlier here in BR, but I also updated them here with most recent studies that reported weekly undergraduate study now averages 13 hours per week.

      And I also mentioned that these 13 hour study averages are further diluted by the strong trend away from student’s individual study alone to group study among students talking with one another, often sharing classroom notes rather than doing independent studies driven by reading and writing exercises. These groups studies have proven highly ineffective.

      Meanwhile all serious studies show that heavy volumes of solitary reading and writing are by far the most critical and essential ingredients to students getting well educated, if at all. Indeed, it’s the only real way for most students to aggregate and integrate the skills that they need to get undergraduate liberal arts and sciences education, that is in the main to educate oneself a book and paper at a time, as professors helps to point the way. For most courses, this is only way to become educated at all.

      Making matters even worse is fact the two semesters within the average the teaching year today are far shorter than before, so there are fewer classes. Long mid term breaks now save on heat, and give professors and students more free time. Today in Higher Education teaching and learning come in last. Fun for students, and research for professors come in first.

      Thus Professor Vedder also reported in his WSJ article that:

      “Federal Adult Literacy Survey data, admittedly somewhat outdated, shows declining literacy among college grads in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. A civic literacy test administered by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute shows appalling gaps in knowledge, with seniors knowing very little more than freshmen.”

  6. Of the required courses I have completed within my current Ph.D. program, 40% have been led by adjunct (part time) instructors or graduate teaching assistants. I am not surprised. Mentors warn graduate students early and often that living-wage faculty jobs require high scholarly output. Faculty cannot sustain this productivity level while also teaching four classes. Fortunately, I am not concerned with my scholarly “index”; I plan to return to applied policy a/o administration whenever I end this Ph.D. adventure.

    On the studying hours subject, many modern students work and attend classes (graduating at a slower pace.) We are not lazy, we are prudent.

    PS: This is another article in a similiar vein as WSJ
    McGreevy, John. “The Great Disappearing Teaching Load” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 3 Feb. 2019. https://bit.ly/2UV6qS5

    • So, as I understand it, the teaching load of the highly paid tenured faculty is shrinking while the teaching load of the lowly paid adjunct faculty is increasing. Wow, no wonder people in academia think the world is full of inequity and inequality.

  7. Recall Jim, that UVA’s Department of English lists some 110 professors and instructors to teach less than 4oo English majors, including some 155 graduate students in English.

    Of these 110 professors are some 64 tenured or tenured track professors who claim to teach primarily on the graduate level. The rest of “the faculty” are professors are adjunct, term limited, or graduate teaching assistants, many of whom are shuttled in to fill the voids caused by tenured professors who are taking ever more frequent year long sabbaticals. The undergraduate students who now participate and major in English courses nationwide at the elites universities have plunged in numbers. Their English Departments, as are much of the humanities, are shadows of their former selves.

  8. Depending on where you look, it appears that about half of college grads work in fields that do not require a degree.

    but then, this is also true : ” Just over a third of American adults have a four-year college degree, the highest level ever measured by the U.S. Census Bureau.

    In a report released Monday, the Census Bureau said 33.4 percent of Americans 25 or older said they had completed a bachelor’s degree or higher. That’s a sharp rise from the 28 percent with a college degree a decade ago.

    When the Census Bureau first asked respondents about their education levels, in 1940, just 4.6 percent said they had a four-year degree.”

    So back in 1940 – more than likely most grads were Medical and Engineering – back in those days Va Tech was primarily an Engineering School and UVA was Medical and other professions that required degrees.

    So would it be a stretch to say that over the years from 1940 – a lot of folks went to college without a real target profession – they just were expecting a generic degree to get them a good paying career job with health care and benefits?

    Similar to the idea that successful folks buy homes and send their own kids to college – that’s the American dream?

    I think this mindset is part and parcel of why so many go to college who are not academically prepared nor have anywhere near the finances necessary and there is one huge adverse impact and that is because there is such a demand – the price has gone up and Colleges are “competing” in this market – and the winners get bigger – hire more professors and administrators and not the least – sports programs.

    That’s why it’s so wrongheaded in several different ways to argue simultaneously that the govt should SUBSIDIZE college AND also seek to control the prices! Normally when the govt subsidizes something – it does NOT lead to lower prices but often the opposite.

    crops, flood insurance and new houses are three other examples of markets that are disrupted by government subsidies and we have the same bizarre ( in terms of economics) arguments that when the govt does this , it HELPS the economy. And it DOES in terms of the companies and institutions that participate in those markets!

    • Larry, is there anyone in society, except those of us who work for a living in the private sector and pay taxes, that you don’t think deserves public funding? No disrespect intended.

  9. The number of US high graduates and college graduates between 1900 and 1940 were tiny compared to today, but the creative inventions they produced had far more impact on lives between 19oo and 1940 than we have been able to create between 1980 and 2019. The comparisons are not even close

    In addition, and not surprisingly therefore, the education and learning levels of student graduates from high school, college, and post college graduates between the years 1900 and 1940, were far higher and more rigorous than the standards and achievements of graduates between the years 1980 and 2019. We are ignoramuses in comparison.

    Indeed, the overall decline in education and learning of high school and college graduates between the two eras (190o to 1940, versus 1980 and 2019) has been astounding.

    Thus, for example, Us Dummies are still trying to catch up with the achievements of Albert Einstein and William Faulkner. Yet the former couldn’t pass many courses he needed to get into college, so had to settle for graduating from a secondary school at turn of century, and the latter, forced to repeat the 11th and 12th grades, still couldn’t graduate from high school.

    Our ridiculously high opinion of ourselves is ill founded, a figment of our imagination, as well as our lack of education, and our equally appalling lack of self awareness.

  10. What’s striking about the specifics cited by Bacon is that they are not fixed by budget–none of these will go away if more money os thrown at them. I think that what Vedder and Bacon’s astute posters point to is not a current crisis, more like a crisis in the pipeline. Out in the marketplace all one hears over and over is lamentation about poor preparedness of the workforce in terms of work ethic and/or training. While it’s always been said “it’s hard to get good help,” there seem to be new concerns. Last night I heard an RN in her early 40s say that she’s appalled at the skill level of RNs only ten years behind her. She says that we all need to be very afraid to go to hospital, and used the word “idiots.”

    If the higher education system, on average, lowers its standards, how will the US continue to compete against foreign systems which may be strengthening their rigors? I a B is the new C, then needing a 4.20 to get into UVA seems appropriate?

    The US economy has benefitted from a technology revolution akin to the industrial revolution, each led by a handful of innovators/disruptors. But many of their business have relied heavily on foreign intellect within their systems. How long before the next disruptor opts to simply set up shop in India or China, bypassing the American workforce? This by the way, is also why tax policy matters–it’s an offset if the caliber of workforce lags.

    Like Larry, I don’t see the sky falling, yet, but I think that to ignore these trends will assure a second or third-rate college degree.

  11. No doubt the slackers who are working through the best seven years of their lives pursuing that undergraduate degree with Daddy’s money will be first in line to decry the income inequality they face from the engineers and doctors. Huckster millionaires like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren depend on a steady progression of uninspired sheep coming out of our colleges and universities.

  12. My combined study time and class time amounted to 70 hours per week during all four years while studying mechanical engineering at Villanova. I graduated in 1953. I don’t think I was atypical, but probably spent more than average. I also worked part-time to help pay for my education and was socially active. In 1975, when I left my tenured position at the University of Delaware, many engineering students had a combined school time of 50 hours. When I taught as an adjunct professor at Catholic University in 1985, the grad students said that their combined time was almost 40 hours per week. I graduated with 161 credit hours. At Delaware, the students graduated with 125. Beware of the bridges you cross.

  13. “[W]e have the same bizarre ( in terms of economics) arguments that when the govt [provides subsidies], it HELPS the economy.”

    Well, even conservatives agree that the government should subsidize certain activities as part of what we loosely call the “social safety net” — which usually refers to providing a service we have collectively decided that everyone should have access to but only the well-off can afford — e.g., health care. But does that automatically include education? Public secondary education only became the norm in the United States in the latter 19th Century — a delayed fulfillment of the idea that democracy requires an educated electorate, and not incidentally helps the economy of our nation by boosting our productivity relative to the rest of the world. Employers today still seem to choose employees partly on the basis of education; but increasingly we read (in places like this blog) that our high school graduates, let alone college grads, don’t acquire employable skills; so, why bother? What if we just scrapped all public education, turned the clock back 150 years and left it up to a kid’s parents to launch their child with private funds? The only way I know to come to grips with WHY government should subsidize any form of education today, is to contemplate the alternative.

    There are still places in this world where any sort of free education is a privilege. In many countries today the access to education is still routinely denied to large groups (e.g. women, minorities). WHY do we do otherwise? I submit that it’s part of our idea that every citizen deserves an equal opportunity to “the pursuit of happiness” if not the equal achievement of it. That means, bottom line, equal access to a good job and the ability to afford a good life.

    But in the process of giving everyone equal opportunity, we have dumbed things down to the bureaucrats’ definition of “equal opportunity,” which is to say, the lowest common denominator of “educated” is good enough. If your competition for a job is simply your neighbor, a product of the same educational system, then that may indeed be good enough. If you have to compete in the global productivity race, however, that’s not going to cut it. No wonder those with less education generally support Trump’s nativist, isolationist agenda or the likes of Brexit, and those with more generally don’t.

    Therefore, Lift and Reed, we agree, the education our children get today is far less rigorous that it used to be — regardless of what impressive grade-inflated labels are being awarded — and it’s those disruptors from Asia and their hires from across the globe that are going to eat our lunch someday. In the meanwhile, we shoot ourselves in the feet by denying immigration to all those talented foreigners who still aspire to come here. Sooner or later they are going to realize that the opportunities here are no longer the best in the world and they will stop trying to come here, but go directly to where the action is. Then we really will have become the isolated backwater our educational system aspires to make us.

    So, does a government subsidy for higher education help or hurt? I believe, given our current approach to education, it unquestionably helps make “equal opportunity” available, all other things equal. As Larry and Reed point out, however, all other things do not remain equal; our higher educational system today is a bloated embarrassment to efficiency and economy. I don’t attribute that entirely to grade inflation and easy government money made available for loans and the lack of lower-cost competition in higher ed., but those factors sure have contributed to the problem.

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