Elite Colleges Urged to Focus on Merit and Hard Work over Affirmation

Recently, I published a less sophisticated explanation for the exaggerated behavior witnessed in prestigious colleges: there is an excessive number of students who are merely aimless, isolated, and uninterested. Although it is commendable that we are concerned about the mental and emotional well-being of today’s college students, it is possible that, to a large extent, our efforts are counterproductive and only serve to worsen rather than alleviate their fragility.

Indeed, when assessing the situation objectively, it is challenging to argue that elite college students are overwhelmed or excessively stressed. As I pointed out:

During the previous winter, a survey was conducted among four-year college students, revealing that 64 percent claimed to invest “a lot of effort” into their studies. However, even among these individuals who characterized themselves as hard-working, less than one-third reported spending at least two hours per day studying. In 2010, economists Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks estimated that in 1961, the average full-time student at a four-year college dedicated around 24 hours per week to studying; by 2003, this figure had decreased to 14 hours. We have essentially established a college culture in which students believe that a total of 20 or 25 hours spent in class and studying constitutes a full week.

Photo of Rick Hess with text "Old School with Rick Hess"

Despite the decrease in workload, grades have significantly increased. While the Harvard Crimson editorial board has previously expressed concern about the “unreasonable expectation of continuous productivity” among Harvard students, grade inflation has become prevalent in selective colleges over the past few decades. (Harvard’s average GPA rose from 3.0 in 1967 to 3.8 in 2022). Moreover, once admitted, elite college students know that they are unlikely to face difficulties in earning a diploma, as their institutions boast a graduation rate of 96 percent, as reported by College Evaluator.

Could it be that students at selective colleges are occupied with jobs? In the 1980s, 40 percent of college students in the United States worked full-time, compared to only one in ten in 2020, according to National Center for Education Statistics. Meanwhile, the Surgeon General has issued a warning about the increasing loneliness and isolation experienced by Americans, particularly those between the ages of 15 and 24, who have seen a 70 percent decline in in-person socialization since 2003, with daily interaction reduced to 40 minutes in 2020.

If students are not devoting their time to studying, working, or socializing, what are they actually doing? This is the question that remains. Firstly, college-age individuals spend an unusually large amount of time online, engaging with videos and scrolling through social media, as revealed by an ECAR study.

The atmosphere of apathy commonly observed in elite colleges is less pronounced in regional institutions and community colleges, where students tend to be more engaged. These students are more likely to attend part-time, live at home, be older, and have familial and job responsibilities. Nearly a third of community college students work more than 30 hours per week, and 15 percent have two or more jobs. In these institutions, students are far less inclined to participate in protests on manicured quads and are instead occupied with transportation and childcare, as reported by the Association of Community College Trustees.

Ironically, the dynamics mentioned above are an open secret. Following the publication of the original article, numerous faculty members reached out to share their own experiences, often responding with a simple “Yup!” One experienced professor humorously recounted an anecdote:

For twenty-five years, I have been teaching an introductory psychology course with a large enrollment. During early November, a student came to see me during my office hours. She had failed the first midterm on October 13 and the second midterm on October 31. Here is the gist of the conversation:

Student: After receiving an F on the first midterm, I put in a “superhuman” effort to study for the second midterm.

Professor: How much time did you actually allocate to this class? Exclude the time you spent attending the class or reading the textbook for the first time. How many additional hours did you spend studying from October 13 to October 31?

Student: Approximately three or four hours.

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