Brilliant: The Science of Smart

Does College Put Kids on a ‘Party Pathway’?

Higher education has become "college lite" for many students, stunting their intellectual growth

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A fair amount of schadenfreude greeted the release last week of a study showing that the kids of parents who pay for college return their families’ largesse by achieving lower grades. The study, conducted by University of California at Merced professor Laura Hamilton and published in the American Sociological Review, offered those of us who worked our way through college — or took out burdensome student loans — a rare opportunity to gloat. But our self-congratulation is mistaken, or at least beside the point. Hamilton’s work, and that of other researchers, demonstrates that we should all be concerned about the state of higher education in the U.S. today and that college students enjoying a four-year paid vacation courtesy of their parents are merely a symptom of a larger problem.

That problem is this: across the board, American colleges and universities are not doing a very good job of preparing their students for the workplace or their postgraduation lives. This was made clear by the work of two sociologists, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. In 2011 they released a landmark study titled “Academically Adrift,” which documented the lack of intellectual growth experienced by many people enrolled in college. The authors examined the results of tests taken at the beginning, middle and end of students’ undergraduate careers and concluded that 45% of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during their first two years of college, while 36% failed to demonstrate improved learning across all four years. In particular, Arum and Roksa found, college students were not developing the critical thinking, analytic reasoning and other higher-level skills that are necessary to thrive in today’s knowledge-based economy and to lead our nation in a time of complex challenges and dynamic change.

(MORE: The Myth of the Four-Year College Degree)

Arum and Roksa placed the blame for students’ lack of learning on a watered-down college curriculum and lax undergraduate work ethic. Although going to college is supposed to be a full-time job, the authors reported that students spent, on average, only 12 to 14 hours a week studying and that many were skating through their semesters without doing a significant amount of reading and writing. Students who take more challenging classes and spend more time studying do learn more. But the priorities of many undergrads are with extracurricular clubs and activities, fraternities and sororities, practicing and playing sports, and partying and socializing — and let’s not forget sleeping. The results are clear, wrote Arum and Roksa: “Educational practices associated with academic rigor improved student performance, while collegiate experiences associated with social engagement did not.”

If students’ priorities are off, perhaps they’re taking cues from the top. Another study released last week — this one by the Delta Cost Project, a branch of the American Institutes for Research — found that universities and colleges that belong to Division I, the top tier of college sports, spend about three to six times as much on athletics per athlete as they spend on academics per student. In the Southeastern Conference, which produced the last seven NCAA national champions in football, the ratio is more like 12 times as much spending on athletes as on students. “Not only does athletic spending per athlete far exceed academic spending per student, it is also growing about twice as fast,” the report noted, with much of the spending going to multimillion-dollar coaching contracts, more athletic staff and better facilities.

(MORE: Highlighting Is a Waste of Time: The Best and Worst Learning Techniques)

Hamilton, the author of the study on parents who pay for college, will argue in a forthcoming book that college administrations are overly concerned with the social and athletic activities of their students. In Paying for the Party, a book she co-authored with sociologist Elizabeth Armstrong that will be published this spring, Hamilton describes what she calls the “party pathway,” which eases many students through college, helped along by a powerful Greek system, residence halls that funnel students into the party scene and a host of easier majors. By sanctioning this version of college lite, Hamilton and Armstrong write, universities are “catering to the social and educational needs of affluent, full-freight students at the expense of others” who won’t enjoy the financial backing or social connections of richer students once they graduate.

These students need to build skills and knowledge during college if they are to use their degrees as a stepping-stone to middle-class mobility. But more-privileged students must not waste this opportunity either. As recent graduates can attest, the job market isn’t kind to candidates who can’t demonstrate genuine competence, along with a well-honed willingness to work hard. Nor is the global economy forgiving of an American workforce with increasingly weak literacy, math and science abilities. College graduates will still fare better than those with only a high school education, of course. But a university degree unaccompanied by a gain in knowledge or skills is an empty achievement indeed. For students (parentally funded or not) who have been coasting through college — and for American universities that have been demanding less work, offering more goodies and charging higher tuition — the party may soon be over.

MORE: Can Obama Really Lower the Cost of College?

39 comments
crazydancer999
crazydancer999

I was 23 when I started college with a major in nursing, a single dad who realized that he had to get an education in a field where I could take care of my daughter.  At least for me, having a kid greatly focuses your attention on being responsible and working hard in school and beyond.

DarioGarcia
DarioGarcia

andrei shubin, universities have to be gatekeepers because even though its unfair they limit people from learning the most  they have to filter out people who dont deserve  to study there  because many people try their hardest to get good grades and they only allow a few so explain why would  they let some lazy ass student enter  due to the fact that you have to pay to go to university and other students have better grades  and i dont think that a person who pays a lot of money to go to university would throw their future away by partying . Our society has changed and  many  students  want to go to a 4 year university so i believe  that they have their mind focused on getting their dream job.

NaveedXVO
NaveedXVO

Why should universities do a good job? They just hand out that paper and you are knighted in America. 4 or 5 years of education is just a charade for most people. The paper means you get picked first for jobs in the real world regardless of your ability. I suppose it filters out the real dregs, but there's got to be a more efficient and just way to do it. Why should universities be the gatekeepers?

pendragon05
pendragon05

I was a serious student - went to class, did homework, study, went to my part time jobs.

reese85
reese85

I'm likely in the minority of students who worked very, very hard despite the fact that my parents paid for my undergraduate. At the end of the day, however, it didn't seem to matter how students paid for school or how hard they worked--we all were all equally unprepared for the working world. I had no support from my school when applying for internships, no idea what kind of work I could do with my major, and our career resource center was a windowless room filled with LSAT books.

Andrei Shubin
Andrei Shubin

Some colleges are in the middle of nowhere and thus there is not much else to do but drink and get high.

Karen M Holland
Karen M Holland

Depends on the college. I work at a school where 90% of our students commute and are working full time while attending school. Not a lot of it going on around here.

dgdoesstuff
dgdoesstuff

Here's another bit: when I was in High School, my teachers were (generally) competent people.  Smart, trustworthy, intelligent people who were highly, highly trained in what they were supposed to be teaching. With very few exceptions, I started class not knowing something and left knowing something. 

My Mom said College would be even better. I was very excited.

She was wrong. Very wrong. Maybe it's just 'cause it's a local University, but with 1 exception, every single one of my College teachers were horrifically incompetent. They were all adjuncts who had never been trained to teach anything.  I'd start class not knowing something and leave class knowing even less. It was horrible. Absolutely horrible. My math teacher kinda sorta spoke English not really. Anything I knew about math beforehand made less sense afterward. My English teacher spent 90% of the class on Women's Rights.  The other classes were *worse*.  

Chang Yu-Jen
Chang Yu-Jen

"College is the new high school." Yes, the college community is not the "real world." It tends prolongs the transition to adulthood.

Colleen McGovern
Colleen McGovern

No, it teaches team building properly, not horrible war. They know they need that peice of paper that they studied so many hours for a company to even look at them. Walk in the door and further promotions.

William Baker
William Baker

If you believe this true, then you are what they ask of.

Rachael Crotts
Rachael Crotts

Um yes & um no...I've been there...sh** happens ..

J.j. Lasne
J.j. Lasne

Just lower the drinking age to 18 or 16 so the partying can start in high school instead. And legalize MJ. Make school free so everyone has an opportunity to parteee. Problem solved.

Dilnesaw N Motbainor
Dilnesaw N Motbainor

R u for real? They say there's time for everything and it's called college.

Sandeep Cariapa
Sandeep Cariapa

@Ossie can you please make your statement fit into 140 characters or less?

Ron Bigilin
Ron Bigilin

no, just as most things in life, it is a choice.

Paul Ledesma
Paul Ledesma

For some reason this doesn't sound like a "new" trend.

David James Papa
David James Papa

No the rigors of an unrealistic debt/educational system do ... Yay I have a piece of paper after jumping through hoops for 4 or more years and now I'm thousands in debt with no guarantee of employment ... That wouldn't drive you to drink at say 20-24 yrs old ... You must be too dumb or puritanical to understand the reality and what it imposes on your future... Don't blame systemic values on escapism

Cindy Scott-Reynoso
Cindy Scott-Reynoso

No, not if you raise them with good morals, ethics and the ability to be accountable and know right from wrong!

Ossie Sharon
Ossie Sharon

It is a symptom of a larger national problem related to the general dumbing down of an increasingly attention-strapped country.

xebob
xebob

This reminds me of a true story where the kids in a college class were told by the instructor that they were finished for the day even though they had 20 minutes left. The kids were happy to get out early but an older adult in the class objected to this. He told the instructor that he had paid for those 20 minutes, and he wanted all of the time instruction-wise that he was due. Of course the kids didn't like this. He got his 20 minutes.

heLLZxMaKeR
heLLZxMaKeR

I am in a very rigorous engineering program and everyone I know that has graduated from my university says that having a real job is much easier than being in school. I party my ass off and make decent grades, and my internship opportunity I had last summer at Cisco Systems was a blast and I did a great job. I understand that this study is based off of a generalization (as with all of sociology, a field which in my opinion rarely produces anything of intellectual merit), but breaking this study apart based on majors would be much more intellectually nourishing; a real problem to consider is that colleges offer degrees like "Forestry" and "Professional Golf Management" which requires no more intelligence than a smart 10th grader. (Please note that I am lucky enough to have grandparents who are successful enough to pay for my school) 

JoshuaE
JoshuaE

In my undergrad I had a rigorous curriculum and poor study skills.  In my grad work I had a business school curriculum and studied hard.  The fact that I was paying for my grad work was the big factor.

HaileyMawhinney
HaileyMawhinney

I'm not sure if college curriculum is necessarily the determining factor in whether a student shows improvement in critical thinking skills or not. In my experience, either you have it or you don't, meaning that once you get to college either you've already developed a good work ethic and can balance a social life and school, or you just can't. Not to say that they can't be improved once you get to college. I've studied undergrad in America at a USN&WR Top 100 college (a division I school in the SEC), and I've also studied in England at a university ranked in the top 100 according to QS World Universities Ranking (a school that does not fund any sports teams, and has no Greek life). I'm a humanities student. The curricula equate, I find. I would also say that my university in America has stricter policies, especially where attendance and class participation is concerned. I assure you that if you want to coast through college you don't have to do it in America. You can do it anywhere.

jhame
jhame

@dgdoesstuff It was exactly the same for me.  I went to a prestigious UC school in California and it was considered a "good" class schedule if all my teachers spoke English.  Then I took some summer classes at a local community college, and the teachers were so much better.  They all knew how to teacher and spoke English. 


The problem is that today's universities are focused on research and not teaching.

Fluffy
Fluffy

@heLLZxMaKeR I object to your issue with forestry and professional golf management degrees.  I know young people who have studies both!!  These are both highly skilled areas that need professionals working in their fields. I imagine that you are ignorant about much that is involved in each of these highly skilled professions.  I expect you all find a real job to be more difficult than school where you can party your ass off and still succeed!! Hopefully, a real job will help bring you the maturity you need to be truly successful in this world!  Best wishes.

JenniferBonin
JenniferBonin

@HaileyMawhinneyThere's truth in what you say, in that some people are just naturally smarter or harder working than others.  But I've also watched as friends of mine, who were probably as smart and willing to work as I was, went into majors much "fluffier" than my own engineering.  I worked several hours a day on homework.  My literature, education, and business major friends didn't.  And not because they were slackers or stupid, but just because it wasn't NEEDED.  They got all their work done, and then spent the rest of their time hanging out with their friends.  Nothing wrong with that; I did the same.  The difference was the amount of time and thought needed to accomplish the homework.  And, accordingly, the amount learned.

I was challenged.  They weren't.  And that makes a difference in the amount students actually learn.  There are a heck of a lot of students out there today who COULD and WOULD do more, but are never asked to do so.

Cboyle88
Cboyle88

@HaileyMawhinney I miss college. Also super stoked to read your post and your picture is i assume you chugging a bottle. Rock on

heLLZxMaKeR
heLLZxMaKeR

@Fluffy @heLLZxMaKeRYea but I think you are overestimating the kind of skill required to complete PGM and forestry jobs; if the hardest thing I did all day was play golf so that I could get an "A" on a player skills test for my major or learn about how to grow grass then I would be set for life (except the fact that I suck at golf). So let me paint a clearer picture: PGM requires NO critical thinking that applies to any other job except  being a golf professional (a job that is in such low demand that you are wasting your money in school). So you leave college unprepared because you have spent time and money learning skills that are essentially useless. Engineering, on the other hand, is a field in which massive amounts of mathematics and physics are required in order to succeed  in a typical class, the theory is taught and the application is learned in the form of  homework assignments and tests. You also said "I expect you all find a real job to be more difficult than school..." which is completely contradictory to a point I was making previously; you work on average 40 hours of week for a job and ultimately everyone on your "team" or your coworkers are all getting paid to brainstorm and solve problems together using EVERY resource available by your employer/coworkers. This is much more useful than the 70-80 hour weeks of homework, class and studying required for an engineering degree where the only help you can get is from a TA, book or professor. Engineering/medicine/cutting edge science degrees build the necessary skills and work ethic required to be successful in any job as well as the implied IQ that comes with making it through any of these rigorous degree programs. 

pendragon05
pendragon05

@JenniferBonin Congrats on doing what is considered a very difficult major, humanities degrees lead to nothing but positions at fast food joints