The declining value of an 'A'


It's a perennial human temptation to lament the laziness and insouciance of the next generation.

Once in awhile, curmudgeons find tangible evidence for their complaints. That happened this month, when a soon-to-be published report about college student study habits in The Review of Economics and Statistics began reviving concerns about work-shirking Millennials.

The analysis of time-use surveys, conducted by University of California economists Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks, found that the average college student now studies 14 hours a week, down from 24 hours in 1961. The drop is an across-the-board phenomenon, the authors said: "Study time fell for students from all demographic subgroups, within every major, and at four-year colleges of every type, degree structure and level of selectivity. We conclude that the change in college culture is real."

One might assume that fewer hours spent hitting the books would translate into lower grades. Not so, say former Duke University geophysics professor Stuart Rojstaczer and Furman University computer science professor Christopher Healy. In a report published by the Teachers College Record last spring, the pair analyzed college grade-point averages during roughly the same time period that Babcock and Marks analyzed study hours. They found that grade-point averages rose about a tenth of a point per decade over the last 50 years, from a national average of 2.52 in the 1950s to about 3.11 a few years ago.

It's tempting to believe that students today simply are smarter than they used to be. Ubiquitous laments from professors and employers about the short attention spans and deficient writing and arithmetic skills of today's graduates suggest that's probably not the case.

Nor is it likely that technology is the culprit in waning study hours and rising grades. The Internet may make term-paper research faster and easier, while electronic distractions like Facebook and Twitter surely cut into study time. Yet Babcock and Marks found that the largest portion of the decline in study hours happened prior to 1981 – well before Google, Wikipedia, laptops and cell phones transformed the college scene.

A more intriguing and troubling explanation is what Babcock and Marks referred to as the "mutual non-aggression pact" between tenure-focused professors and their slothful students. The unspoken deal: Students will give their professors glowing course evaluations in exchange for lighter workloads and higher grades. This cynical, consumerist approach to education fits neatly with the trend toward universities marketing themselves as brands and urging students to spend exorbitant sums on tuition in exchange for diplomas – and G.P.A.s – that help them land the jobs they want.

Lost in this transaction is the reason higher education exists in the first place. As much as America needs an educated workforce, churning out skilled workers never has been the only, or even the primary, purpose of our colleges and universities. A college education should steep students in the best that has been thought and said through the centuries, teach them how to think critically and ignite in them a passion for lifelong learning. Graduates armed with those experiences and qualities have a far better shot at finding jobs – or creating new ones – than those whose college education consisted simply of pasting rephrased Wikipedia entries on term papers and lobbying their professors for higher grades than they deserved.

This cynical, consumerist approach to education fits neatly with the trend toward universities marketing themselves as brands and urging students to spend exorbitant sums on tuition in exchange for diplomas – and G.P.A.s – that help them land the jobs they want.

Unfortunately, many campus trend-spotters say the latter type of graduate is becoming more common than the former. There is even a name for their condition: "academic entitlement." Veteran professors spot its sufferers with ease. They are the self-esteem-saturated students who arrive late at their lectures, peck away at their cell phones and Blackberries all through class, then argue indignantly when they fail to earn an A simply for showing up. A 2008 study in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence noted the reported rise in their ranks and found that their attitude is closely linked to pressure from parents who focus on "materially rewarding good grades."

And therein lies a sliver of good news. If parents who relentlessly push resume-padding have the power to foster academic entitlement in their children, then parents who do the reverse have the power to combat it, by teaching their children to slow down, wrestle through the tough stuff and enjoy learning for its own sake.



Colleen Carroll Campbell. "The declining value of an 'A'." St. Louis Post-Dispatch (July 15, 2010).

Reprinted with permission of the author, Colleen Carroll Campbell.


Colleen Carroll Campbell is an author, television and radio host and former presidential speechwriter. Author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy, Campbell writes a weekly op-ed column for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, blogs on religion and politics for The New York Times and The Washington Post, speaks to audiences across America, and hosts her own television and radio show, "Faith & Culture," on EWTN, the world's largest religious media network. Her website is here.

Copyright © 2010 Colleen Carroll Campbell

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