Harvard has increasingly become a place in Cambridge for bright students to gather—that happens to offer lectures on the side,” a student named Aden Barton wrote in Harvard Magazine recently. Colleges and universities have traveled this path for some time. In 2011, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa published Academically Adrift, which found that the time college students spend studying had dropped by about half since the 1960s, from 25 hours a week to roughly 12.

Arum and Roksa suggested that one reason for declining study time was that professors were assigning very little work. One-third of students in their survey did not take any courses with more than 40 pages of reading assigned per week; half of the whole sample took no courses with significant writing requirements. Arum and Roksa’s conclusions applied to college students nationwide, but many assumed that requirements were more rigorous at elite institutions like Harvard.

No longer. As Barton reports of his fellow Harvard students, “This fall, one of my friends did not attend a single lecture or class section until more than a month into the semester. Another spent 40 to 80 hours a week on her preprofessional club, leaving barely any time for school. A third launched a startup while enrolled, leaving studying by the wayside.” He went on to explain that “for many students, instead of being the core part of college, class is simply another item on their to-do list, no different from their consulting club presentation or their student newspaper article.” After decades of grade inflation and declining standards, academic work has evolved into a sideline for many college students. Professors, too, have adopted a version of the Soviet slogan: “We’ll pretend to teach, and you’ll pretend to learn.”

Several factors account for this trend—among them grade inflation. As Barton notes, “Why bother spending hours on classwork if you’ll never get anything below a B+?”

For many students, even liberal arts majors, college is more a setting for job training than anything else. Preprofessional clubs have become popular to the point that students at many schools must submit rigorous applications to get into them. A recent article in The Atlantic observed that Yale students now must apply for admission to community service organizations, as well as clubs like the Existential Threats Initiative, “which meets to discuss issues such as climate change and AI.” 

Participation in these clubs is another way that students signal to employers that they stand out in a competition in which everyone gets an “A.” Students careful about their schedules and use of time quickly understand that their classes aren’t that demanding. They have lots of time to do other things.  

Finally, this shift away from academics and toward extracurricular activities is a sign that students no longer view their college years as a time for reflection, study, and separation from the “real” world. Just as students now start businesses in their spare time, so, too, are they thoroughly engaged in politics and political controversies. Students increasingly view their campuses as a practice field for launching protests, promoting issues, and campaigning for candidates.

Did professors lower their expectations because of student demands, or because they did not wish to spend time on teaching and grading? Probably both. In any case, professors and students alike accept the new reality that academic study is but one of many activities carried out on the modern college campus.

University administrations are playing along, too, committing fewer resources to hiring faculty and more to hiring administrators and improving the quality of “campus life.” In recent decades, top colleges have hired administrators at three to four times the rate that they have hired full-time faculty. Leading campuses now employ at least three times as many administrators (on a per-student basis) as teaching faculty members. The main activity on these campuses is administration, not teaching, learning, or research.

The political result of all this extracurricular focus is now clear. A 2014 study by Kyle Dodson, assistant professor of sociology at the University of California–Merced, found that students who spent more time on extracurricular activities on campus (as opposed to going to classes and studying) were likelier to move politically from more moderate views to one extreme or the other, but mostly to the left, with a focus on issues like race, gender, and climate. Looking at data from UCLA’s Freshman Survey and the College Senior Survey, Dodson reported that additional time spent in academic pursuits has a moderating influence on students’ politics. Where classwork is demanding, students have less time and inclination to engage in disruptive political activities.

The real source of the decline of academics, then, may lie in extracurricular life on the modern campus. Though college professors lean far to the left, administrators go still further leftward. A survey commissioned by Samuel Abrams at the American Enterprise Institute found that administrators are far more liberal than faculty and students in general. Abrams found that “two-thirds of administrators identified as liberal, with 40 percent of them stating that they are far left.”

In the same issue of Harvard Magazine that Barton’s article appeared, Derek Bok, a former president of the university who acknowledges the problem of ideological imbalance on college campuses, suggests requiring that students take more classes in civics or moral reasoning: “At this time of acute concern about the condition of our democracy and diminished confidence in the leadership of our major institutions, a visible effort by elite universities to strengthen these subjects and teach them to larger numbers of students would surely be beneficial and appreciated by the general public.” That’s a well-meaning recommendation, though it would be hard to implement on elite campuses, where few faculty members even believe in the value of “civics education.”

In his recent book, Troubled, Rob Henderson writes that being in the Air Force between the ages of 17 and 25 probably kept him out of considerable trouble, while preparing him for adult life. Whatever other benefits the military offered him, keeping him busy might have been the most important. Perhaps a similar approach would improve academic life. We could start by requiring students to spend more time in classes—any classes—during a period in their lives when they are most prone to radicalism.

Photo: Frazao Studio Latino/E+ via Getty Images


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next