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Full-Time Students, Part-Time Education

Parents and grandparents lecturing the "Me Generation" how easy they have it get research to support their argument (at least when they're talking about college).

"When I was your age, I had to walk to school. Barefoot. In the snow. And it was uphill — both ways." So begins the stereotypical you-kids-don't-know-how-easy-you-have-it rant.

Ignoring the logistical problems of the uphill-both-ways argument, there's more than a little research suggesting that Grandpa might be right.

One study covered by in October found that leisure time for adolescents in the U.S. has been on the rise since the 1970s, while paid work time, time spent on household chores and time spent doing schoolwork have decreased. On average, girls have gained almost an hour of leisure time per day, and boys' free time has increased by an hour and a half.

A recently published paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the amount of time that "full-time" college students actually spend on school every week has declined, too, from 40 hours per week in 1961 to 27 hours per week in 2003.

Assistant professors of economics Philip S. Babcock and Mindy Marks used data sets dating back to 1961 to determine how much time per week the average college student devoted to class or studying. They found that all students — regardless of race, gender, ability, family background or major — spend less time doing schoolwork today than they used to. This was true for both employed and unemployed students at colleges of every type, size, degree structure and level of selectivity.

Their research suggests that both full-time partiers and part-time workers are spending less time on academic pursuits than their predecessors, as are both Ivy Leaguers and state-school students. Whether today's co-eds major in biochemical engineering or English, they probably have more free time than their parents did during their college days.

The researchers only included respondents who were on track to graduate in four years, so the decline in study time can't be explained by more students adopting the "five-year plan." It also doesn't include the (growing) number of people who start college but never get degrees.

So why is it that today's college experience includes so much free time?

Their data doesn't allow them to draw strong conclusions, the researchers write, but they point to two possible explanations.

The first is an improvement in what they call "education production technologies." This seems plausible: the replacement of the adding machine with the calculator and the typewriter with the computer seem like obvious time-saving advances.

They also suggest that colleges might just be meeting student demand for more free time. College students today might have grown accustomed to more "me time" after spending their high school days loafing around, and colleges need to attract tuition-paying students to survive.

Their findings suggest that the opportunity cost of spending a year in college has decreased, since full-time students are no longer dedicating as much time to school-related pursuits. On the upside, it could make college more attractive and earning money for tuition more feasible. However, if time spent studying is a meaningful indication of how much you're getting out of your education, it could also mean that college degree today means a lot less than it used to.