Anything But Studying

Survey of U. of California students shows emphasis on socializing, leisure that may change with recession.
February 9, 2010

The latest snapshot of how University of California students spend their time suggests sleep and socializing were far more important than classes and studying to the average undergraduate there. But that was two years ago, before institutions and families plunged into economic turmoil, and things may have changed.

In a survey conducted on all nine of the university’s undergraduate campuses in the spring of 2008 and completed by 63,600 students, students on average reported getting six-and-a-half hours of sleep each night and spending 41 hours a week on social and leisure activities. Meanwhile, students said they spent a little more than 28 hours each week combined on class and homework.

Released Tuesday by the Berkeley-based Center for Studies in Higher Education (CSHE), the University of California Undergraduate Experience Survey (UCUES), "Engaged Learning in a Public Research University," documents a moment in time when a major public university system was on the cusp of the economic instability, budget cuts and tuition hikes of the last two years.

A co-principal researcher of the study, Steven Brint, a professor of sociology and Associate Dean of the College of Humanities/Arts, Arts, and Social Sciences at UC Riverside, said that though the report is based on students and the system as they were nearly two years ago, some of “the same trends we’ve seen will continue despite the different economic circumstances," like continued growth of the first- and second-generation immigrant populations, and a greater emphasis on undergraduate research.

Economic shifts could, though, bring with them changes in how students use their time.

It’s hard to know for sure whether students have given up some of their free time since the pre-meltdown spring of 2008, when they averaged 41.1 hours each week on social and leisure activities. Of that time, 10.7 went to non-academic computer use, 10.5 to socializing with friends, 6.0 to recreational or creative interests, 5.4 to physical exercise and sports, 5.0 to watching TV and 3.5 to attending entertainment events. Since 2003, there’s been substantial growth in the number of hours students devote to recreational computer use.

Students spent on average 7.6 hours a week working a job, 6.1 hours on co-curricular activities and 1.8 hours on religious or spiritual activities. Higher tuition and greater financial pressures within families may force students to take on more hours of work.

“At every type of institution, in every major, every demographic group, there’s been a longtime increase in leisure time,” Brint said. “There’s something about the college experience as something that has to do with friends, social life, organizational involvement, recreation and not just academics." But, he added, all that could change as students realize the economic realities they face post-graduation

Students’ relatively small dedication of time to out-of-class studying has remained about the same since the survey was first conducted in 2003. In 2008, students in the physical sciences and engineering averaged 15.1 hours each week on out-of-class academic work; while students in the biological sciences reported spending 13.7 hours on academic work; students in the arts and humanities, 11.9 hours; and students in the social sciences, 11.5 hours.

In average weekly study time, the difference between a 3.60 GPA and a 2.79 or lower GPA is only about an hour a week, with high-GPA students averaging about 13 hours a week of studying while students with GPAs of 2.79 or lower reported studying for a little less than 12 hours each week.

But high joblessness rates, coupled with rising tuition and the potential that students will graduate with greater debt burdens, could lead students to spend more time focused on their studies, Brint said. “Because it’s costing more and because there’s so much uncertainty out there about whether you can get a job and what kind of job it is, it could cause people to redouble their efforts in the classroom.”

Sixty-one percent of the survey’s respondents said they were born outside the United States or who had one parent who was, up from 57 percent in 2003. On the Irvine and Riverside campuses, more than 70 percent of students fell into these first- and second-generation categories.

First-generation and low-income students reported spending more time studying and less time on social activities. If their ranks continue to grow, as Brint said he expects them to, this would only add to the uptick in study time that he foresees. “First generation students study more than third generation students and there are a variety of reasons that’s true,” he said, including the likelihood they’ll choose to major in a science, technology, engineering or math field; need to spend extra time reading and writing in English; or come from a lower-income family.

A third of upper-division undergraduates reported having done some form of research activity out of class, compared with 19 percent in a 2007 study conducted using data from the National Survey of Student Engagement.

While 26 percent of the undergraduates surveyed said they planned to end their educations with a bachelor’s degree, 21 percent expected to go on to earn a master’s degree, 18 percent a doctorate and 13 percent an M.D. or other health degree. Nearly one-fifth of Asian or Asian-American students said they aspired to earn an M.D.

The survey report was coauthored by John Aubrey Douglass, a senior research fellow at CSHE; Gregg Thomson, executive director of Berkeley's Office of Student Research and Campus Surveys; and Steve Chatman, UCUES project director.

The next round of surveys will be conducted this spring with more questions on finances and affordability. “From my point of view, the university is going to need to focus on understanding enrollments and offering sufficient courses so that students can complete their degrees in a timely way.”


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