Learning Takes Time

We are not the first to suggest that enrolling for college classes has a lot in common with signing up for a gym membership. The promise of both types of investment is that you will emerge from them a changed person. The gym provides an opportunity for you to build muscles, slim down, or become more fit; the college offers an environment where you can learn facts and theories, or learn how to do certain things, or perhaps change in deeper ways, in values or in outlook or in the range of people you know.

But as many gym members who sign up in response to a New Year’s resolution know, just forking over the cash won’t make your mirror image look any different three months later. And registering for classes won’t by itself make you smarter or more learned or better able to solve problems. Both types of enterprises offer you the opportunity to transform yourself, in smaller or larger ways, but it is the client who has to bring the effort—and the time—to make the transformation happen.

The transformations most gym participants aim for can be accomplished in one’s spare time, just in the way one can pick up a course or two at a local college. But every four years we are reminded that preparing to compete at the Olympic level is a full-time job. Back when the ethos of amateurism dominated the Olympics, all manner of devices had to be deployed to find ways to provide food and shelter for athletes while they trained, without blatantly violating the rule that they couldn’t be paid as athletes. Allowing professionals into Olympic competition removed at least one layer of the hypocrisy and corruption that often plague high-level sports competition (including, notably, American college sports, where the myth of amateurism continues to generate hypocrisy on a large scale).

The fact is that you can’t, with rare exceptions, be a world-class athlete and hold down a full-time non-athletic job. For exactly the same reasons, you can’t, with rare exceptions, be an excellent full-time college student and at the same time hold down a full-time job. Both athletes and college students need to find a way to get food and shelter without working full time for a living.

The core fact here, one that receives too little attention in discussions of college finance and productivity, is that student time is an absolutely crucial resource in learning, in the same way that training and practice time are needed for high athletic achievement. You can’t transform your body without time at the gym, and you can’t transform your mind without time in classes, at the computer, in the lab, and with the books.

We want to underscore that learning takes time whether the work of learning happens in a college dorm room or at your dining room table. Taking courses on line or by correspondence still requires reading, doing problem sets, interacting with instructors, and so on. Learning time is perhaps less visible if it happens at home, but we shouldn’t automatically assume that it is less time.

The fact that learning requires time and attention implies the need to pay for that time. When not in school, most people pay their own living expenses by working. But full-time students have to give up much of their wage-earning time—these are the “forgone earnings” that economists identify as a major cost of education—and thus usually can’t pay for the necessities of life out of their own earnings. For students who live outside the family home, whether in a dormitory or an off-campus apartment, the room and board expense at a public institution is typically larger than the tuition expense—even before allowing for the contribution to tuition made by grants and tuition discounts. Indeed for a large fraction of students going to community colleges who are eligible for grant aid there is no net tuition to pay, and grants often also cover some fraction of the room and board cost.

The important role of forgone earnings that causes the inability to pay for the living costs in the college expense budget is a fact too little noticed in discussions of getting college costs under control. Even significant progress by colleges in finding ways to produce educational services more cheaply will still leave full-time attendance at college an expensive proposition for families and students, or else for governments. If we really wanted to make college “free” for either some or all students, we would have to go well beyond eliminating tuition and fees and also have governments pay people for their time. This would be essentially equivalent to paying the cost of food and shelter for college attendees. The richest colleges and universities have shouldered this burden for their neediest students, but it would be quite a dramatic step for governments to take that burden on for any significant portion of the national student body.

Some lucky students are born into families where parents are both wealthy enough and supportive enough to pay the living costs on their behalf. That is not the case though for the majority of younger students and it is true of very few older ones. One option for those less lucky students is to “work their way through school.” A few hardy souls will manage to work full time for pay and devote serious attention to full time study, but for normal people, the more likely result is some combination of spotty job performance and inattention to school. Another option is to stretch out the time in school—attending part-time while working enough for pay to keep body and soul together (for oneself and perhaps one’s dependents as well). This course has major hazards. First, the longer the educational program is stretched out, the better the chances that some external event—a new baby, a lost job, a home foreclosure—will derail the plan. And getting the right courses in the right order to fit around a work schedule that may well be inflexible adds to the challenge. This is a strategy that is probably better suited to short-term certificate programs than to earning associate’s or especially bachelor’s degrees. Moreover, stretching out the time to degree reduces the time period you have in which to gain the benefits of the education you seek. You are trading more years at lower pre-college part-time wages against more years at higher full-time college wages.

So if the fundamental problem here is learning time—how to find it and how to pay for it—how about the option of just getting students to learn more in less time? There is credible evidence from surveys that students spend less time studying than they used to (although it’s not inconceivable that part of the explanation for the change in students’ reported study hours is that the time it takes today’s students to do their reading and research online is less than the time their parents spent going to the library and filling out inter-library loan requests to accomplish the same tasks. Or perhaps today’s students are more honest about how they spend their time than we of older generations were!) But there is no doubt some room for good old fashioned speed up—pushing people to work harder and faster—at a lot of colleges. And yet the fact is that the trends are going the other way. Time to degree keeps increasing—it’s now well over five full-time years at public universities. Maybe we should work on the four-year degree before we embark on a three-year version. And a danger of the current push to shorten the time required for all types of degrees is that the outcome will be a diminution of both academic learning and personal development.

Ultimately a better solution may lie in changes in the organization of schooling that enable students to work smarter rather than just harder and faster. Colleges don’t seem particularly to be organized around the idea that student time is actually quite an expensive resource. To bring that point out, think about a university lecture course with 500 students attending for three hours a week. Suppose those students could have been at some job earning $10 an hour if they weren’t in the class. The cost of that class in student time is $15,000 a week—certainly more than most professors are paid to teach a class.

If much of the time spent listening to those lectures is wasted, as much contemporary research on learning suggests, this mode of teaching is staggeringly expensive. “Flipped classrooms” that use more classroom time for interaction among professor and students and less time in rote lecture; less rigid, more modular conceptions of what a course is that break down the assumption that everything takes exactly the same number of weeks to learn; and interactive computer technology in certain courses that may increase the pace of learning—these are strategies that may well bear fruit. Getting colleges to think of student time as a scarce and precious resource to be conserved could make a difference. Needless to say, getting students to see their time that way as well—as some do but perhaps too many don’t—might be a big help as well.


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