A couple years ago, I noticed something strange: intelligent and interested students were showing up to class without having done the reading. That might not sound shocking, but even those who came to class early and stayed late to ask questions and were deeply invested in the topics under discussion were routinely failing to put even modest efforts toward preparing for class. Puzzled, I asked them why. They claimed simply not to have the time to read or prepare for class due to commitments to extracurricular activities.
My students are not dumb. Nor are they lazy. Can so many of them really be so busy singing in a cappella groups, planting trees for the environment and playing intramural ultimate Frisbee that they just can’t find the time or energy to get to readings or problem sets? It seems they are. And it is robbing them of their education.
I should clarify at the outset that I not talking about students who need to work full-time jobs for financial reasons or who have onerous and essential duties to care for children, siblings, parents or other family members. Such students face other, larger challenges than those presented by campus activities.
I am also not talking about that small subset of students actively pursuing specialized careers -- e.g., in professional sports or on Broadway -- that are deeply related to activities outside of course work (and for which these activities can often become effectively extended auditions). My students also are not just lounging about all day or partying all night.
Sports, clubs, social advocacy groups and other activities can all be good things and have positive impacts on students and the community. But a critical mass of some of the country’s most talented and diligent students systematically sell themselves short, turning away from their academic work in favor of all and sundry extracurricular activities. Many are intensely stressed and consumed by those pursuits, such that they appear to have substantially less time for rest and leisure than their counterparts did two decades ago, even as they spend much less time in the library or laboratory.
Why would they do this? What would make all those extras seem more important than the curriculum itself? It isn’t just that they are more fun -- though many may be -- and, in fact, some students said they didn’t enjoy or even really care about all those activities. Yet they compete for opportunities to squander much their college years on them. I have no authoritative answer but can suggest some hypotheses.
Holdover mentality from high school. Many American high schools push their students to excel in as many extracurricular activities as they can, often because they think this helps those students gain admission to top colleges and universities. To the extent it does, a purposely selected sample of the most driven extracurricular participators turn up on our campuses.
Barely removed from extracurricular hothouse of high school and admissions, they are suddenly thrust into a world in which their time and lives are truly their own and the possible extracurricular activities are nearly limitless. Unable to shake what has been so deeply ingrained, they sign up for as many as they can. They then feel that dropping any activities would look bad on a résumé, so they remain overextended (and probably become increasingly so) throughout their college years. Some students even said to me -- mistakenly, in my view -- that participation in a wide array of extracurriculars, even at the expense of excelling in their classes, was necessary to land a job or for success in the admissions process for law school or graduate school. It is as if they believed the whole world works like high school.
Also, we tell young people of the need to show leadership, so they seek out arenas in which to demonstrate it, even when it hurts their main occupation as students. On campuses, administrators talk frequently of training new generations of “leaders.” Some employers likely ask job candidates to talk about or demonstrate “leadership experience.” In its pathological form, such leadership fetishism drives students to believe earnestly that serving a term as deputy assistant secretary-general of the Model United Nations is more important than doing the readings on organizations and institutions for their international relations class. A corollary is that today’s youth, reared in a fishbowl of social media and extreme in-group stratification, feel intense pressure to show their peers publicly that they belong -- through turning out for water polo Quidditch, as well as on Facebook or Instagram.
Competitive differentiation in an era of extreme grade inflation. Extracurricular overextension may be a result of decades of extreme grade inflation. If everyone gets at least a B, and most students are getting A’s, how does one stand out from the crowd? It may just be, at least in their minds, that extracurricular activities are one of the few ways for our students to distinguish themselves when all GPAs are high and rising. As students put less and less effort into their classes, we also feed the grade inflation machine by continuing to award high grades nonetheless. The academic bar sinks lower and extracurricular activities become ever more important markers of achievement.
Unintended consequence of helicopter parenting and overscheduled childhoods. It could be that students whose days were planned in 15-minute blocks since the age of three are uncomfortable with unstructured time. Many grew up with doting parents who handled the scheduling for them, always ready to step in to ensure there was time for homework, bassoon lessons, volunteering at the homeless shelter and the cross-country track team, as well as for adequate sleep and healthy meals. With no one to set limits or manage their time for them, these students may be unable to choose or say no when confronted with the smorgasbord of college activities. If their grades do not suffer much -- which they aren’t likely to in this era of grade inflation -- such students may never get the wake-up call that tells them to drop some of the teams and clubs for the sake of their education or their sanity.
Whatever the cause, extracurricular activities now crowd out academic work and cause critical harm to students’ intellectual and personal development. Several years ago, researchers led by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa published a study called Academically Adrift, arguing that today’s students were learning very little (perhaps nothing) and spending too little time or energy on their studies. Indeed, some of our country’s best and brightest (and hardest-working) students are falling haplessly into this pattern -- all because they feel a misguided compulsion to climb rocks, perform improv comedy or host ice cream socials to talk about HIV, when really they should be reading or studying.
Perhaps most usefully, our students ought to try just thinking about what they are learning (or seeking to learn) or meditating on how their lives are changing and (hopefully) coming into focus. In short, the extracurricular arms race needs to stop before it destroys undergraduate education. But how are we to stop it?
We should not try to place undue restrictions or limits on our students’ participation in activities. College students are adults and should be treated as such. Indeed, some parents’ infantilizing micromanagement of their children’s lives may be at the root of the problems we now see. But I do believe we ought urgently to consider at least four concrete steps.
First, admissions officers should reduce the emphasis placed on extracurricular activities in evaluating applications, and they should make it clear publicly to high school students and teachers that they are doing so.
Second, faculty colleagues and college administrators should do all they can to rein in grade inflation that has spun completely out of control at most colleges and universities. This may be easier said than done, but it behooves us to try.
Third, administrators and student life staffers should curtail excessive praise of leadership and leaders to focus instead on helping students develop contemplative, thoughtful and mature scholarly, emotional and social lives and personae.
Fourth and finally, colleges need to stop competing with each other so intensively in terms of the climbing walls and squash courts and return to their roots of rising or falling based on the academic rigor and intellectual vigor to be found on their campuses.
Only when we restore sanity and sober perspective to our own approaches to undergraduate admissions and education can we expect our students to do the same.
William Hurst is an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University.
It has long been a truism in American higher education that junior and senior year are seen as at the top of the curricular pecking order. That is when the major is taken and, frankly, that is where most of our senior faculty really prefer to teach.
First year, on the other hand, is seen by many of us as less important. And because of this, guess who is often assigned general education and introductory courses? Adjuncts, graduate assistants and our most junior faculty.
It’s almost as though introductory and general education courses that define the first two years of college are what students get through as quickly as possible so that they can get to the good stuff in their third and fourth years -- that is, upper-level courses and the major.
But this view is out of sync with what many prospective college students and their parents are thinking. In a book I recently wrote about the transition from high school to college, virtually all of the high school seniors I interviewed, along with their parents, hoped that the first year of college would be a major step up from what they were doing in high school. But they are often disappointed.
At many colleges and universities, first-year students take large introductory courses in classes of 100 or more. Teaching is usually done by an instructor lecturing in front of the classroom while students dutifully take notes later to be regurgitated on a quiz. There is very little class participation involving discussion and debate. Writing anything over a few pages is unusual.
Arizona State University has gone even further. They are offering a Global Freshman Academy that allows first-year students to take their courses by the use of MOOCs (massive open online courses). Students won’t even have to leave the comfort of home to complete their first year! First year is seen as a means to an end, with the end being upper-level courses and the major.
But I would argue that the first year of college is far more important than this -- perhaps, in some ways, just as important as the final years of college.
Why do I believe this?
First year is when college students get a sound, cross-disciplinary grounding in the liberal arts and sciences, especially those who go on to vocational majors like engineering or nursing. The liberal arts are where they learn how to think critically and how to communicate effectively, skills that are crucial for a generation that will have many different careers in their lifetime.
First year to sophomore year is when attrition is at its highest. When I was a college president, 20 percent of first-year students at my institution didn’t return for their sophomore year. Some transferred, but many dropped out of college altogether. Why does this happen? In far too many exit interviews I have seen, dropouts say that they found their first-year classes meaningless.
I will never forget the admissions tour I took at a well-known university with my youngest daughter. We were in the university’s amazing library, and the tour guide, a sophomore, was bragging about the fact that most of his teachers were graduate assistants. “They’re really cool,” he said, “and understand our generation,” whereupon a mother standing next to me uttered sotto voce (but loud enough for everyone to hear), “Why am I paying a small fortune to have my child taught by someone who is only a couple years older than she is?”
That parent was articulating what many parents I interviewed for my book were saying: for $50,000 or more per year, the expectation is that their children will be taught by experienced faculty with the requisite credentials, not by part-time employees or graduate students.
Of course, many of the instructors assigned to introductory or general education courses including adjuncts and graduate students are quite capable teachers. But I believe that first-year students could really benefit from also being taught by senior faculty members who excel in the classroom. In many ways -- and I know this is heretical -- assistant professors who just completed their Ph.D. dissertations are probably the most capable of teaching the major that requires up-to-date knowledge of their discipline. Senior faculty, on the other hand, who through wisdom and experience have a wider view of the world are, in my opinion, the most qualified to teach general education courses designed to give first-year students a broader perspective on human knowledge and, in the process, excite them about what will come later.
Increasingly, colleges are coming to see the crucial importance of the first year. At one college I feature in my book, the freshman writing seminar is largely taught by the college’s most distinguished and experienced senior faculty, who are handpicked because they are also master teachers. First-year advising is also being given a new emphasis. At far too many colleges, advising is relegated to new faculty who have limited knowledge of the curriculum or to adjuncts who have equally limited office hours. But many colleges, realizing that solid advising reduces attrition, are assigning experienced faculty who are skilled at advising or professional advisers to first-year students.
For these colleges and universities, the first year has been given a new priority.
I’d like to end by saying that there is money to be raised by rethinking the first year, which should make presidents who are reading this article happy. I believe that philanthropic individuals and foundations, concerned about the cost of higher education and the human waste when students prematurely drop out and don’t graduate, will resonate to programs that support first-year students and keep them in college. I’m talking about:
Innovative first-year general education programs that challenge and excite first-year students through active learning (including discussion, debate and writing) so that they don’t want to leave college.
Endowed writing centers and other support systems that can save kids who come to college with academic deficiencies.
Endowed first-year opportunity programs that keep underserved and first-generation students in college.
Attrition is enormously expensive. A college of 2,000 students like my own that loses 20 percent of the first-year class potentially forgoes $5 million or more in tuition, room and board, which for many colleges is more than the development office raises each year in the annual fund.
In summary, by putting more energy and resources into the first year I believe we keep more of our students in college and thereby cut down on the enormous human waste when otherwise good students prematurely leave college with outsize debts they can’t pay back because they are unemployable. At the same time we improve our bottom line by not losing so much in tuition dollars. Most important, we graduate students for whom education from the very beginning is a pleasure, not a hardship to be endured.
Roger Martin is president emeritus and professor of history at Randolph-Macon College. He is the author of Off to College: A Guide for Parents. This essay is based on a presentation at the Council of Independent Colleges’ Institute for Chief Academic and Chief Advancement Officers.
One morning this fall, I found a student in a lounge writing a sign on a piece of a brown cardboard box. One side of the cardboard box already said, “I NEED -- SOME MONEY. A SANDWICH*.” At the bottom, it said, “*a graphing calculator.” The student had an overstuffed backpack and a couple of also-stuffed plastic bags.
Professional development applied: the overstuffed backpack and the plastic bags were a signal to ask, “Do you have anywhere to stay tonight?”
She did not. She was registered for fall courses and had a work-study job ready. I took her to the office for these situations. A colleague starting calling shelters. We gave her some food and offered a graphing calculator from the Textbook Assistance Program. She went off to the library to fill out more financial aid applications.
Hunger and food stamps, not sentence fragments, not thesis statements. Hunger and food stamps have been my major professional development since I started teaching College Writing I and doing other odd jobs at Bunker Hill Community College, in Boston. Some weeks, I have spent more time helping students sign up for food stamps than I have correcting essays. Same for many colleagues.
Professional development? Well, no one says “food stamps” anymore. SNAP -- Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program -- is the bloodless euphemism for federal food stamps for the hungry. But SNAP is not for the hungry. No -- SNAP is for people suffering from “food insecurity.” This term encompasses both an aching stomach and having no idea where the next meal is coming from.
More professional development: What is hungry? This is from the SNAP application:
You may get SNAP benefits within seven days if one of the following is true:
Does your income and money in the bank add up to less than your monthly housing expenses? __ Yes __ No
Is your monthly income less than $150 and your money in the bank $100 or less? __ Yes __ No
Are you a migrant worker and is your money in the bank less than $100? __ Yes __ No
Every day, students at Bunker Hill Community College are filling out or renewing SNAP applications.
Wednesdays at the end of each month, the Greater Boston Food Bank delivers 5,000 pounds of groceries. An orderly line of sometimes hundreds of students cleans the food off the tables and packs their groceries for home in an hour. Faculty and staff volunteer to set up, hand out the food and clean up.
Why the end of the month? Professional development: the food-insecure students and the food bank know the monthly SNAP benefits buy about three weeks of food.
There's one data point that almost no one in higher education wants to hear: the local percentage of K-12 students eligible for federal free and reduced-price lunch.
Why the aversion? Knowing means asking the obvious follow-up question: How will these same students, going on to college or a trade school, have lunch?
Los Angeles Unified School District: 59%
Miami Dade: 73%
New York City: 67%
Washington, D.C.: 53%
(Source: Wisconsin HOPE Lab and federal Common Core.)
These numbers scare me, too. With actual hungry students often at my office door, I can’t look away. Let me try here again with my crazy, fuse-blown policy syllogism that sends educations officials and leaders into hiding:
(1) Eighty percent of the Boston K-12 students are on federal free and reduced lunch. Eighty. Eighty. Eighty percent.
(2) National and local policies urge these young people to continue for a postsecondary credential.
(3) And yet we make no provision for lunch when these students go on to Boston’s Roxbury and Bunker Hill Community Colleges?
When I first wrote about hunger and college students in 2012 (click here for the column), two public radio hosts admitted when interviewing me that they had thought I was making up the story. Those who don’t want to know are a distinguished group -- former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and the president of the American Association of Community Colleges. I’ve contacted both often, politely, on- and off-line. I choose to retain my unbridled optimism that one day soon the most recent commissioner of higher education in Massachusetts will agree to a meeting on hunger.
One summer Friday, a student who said he was homeless asked me how he could register for classes without an address. “Have you had anything to eat today?” I asked. This is a question many colleagues ask all the time. He had not. I gave him money to go to the cafeteria, and I told him to buy two sandwiches. What would he eat for the weekend?
Professional development: you have to ask, “Have you had anything to eat today?” Students dissemble if the question is, “Are you hungry?”
Professional development: food-insecure students will often not take as much food as they need. The aforementioned student brought me one of the two sandwiches. I gave that back to him.
Another student who had told me, “I guess you could tell that I haven’t eaten since yesterday,” had taken only a small bottle of orange juice. With a nudge, she accepted a hot dog, which she ate, and three sandwiches that she said she would take home to her children.
Professional development? That feeding students is routine?
Weekdays, volunteers from FoodLink deliver cases of leftover bread from Panera -- I calculate 31,200 loaves since the deliveries began in 2012. A private donor provides about 80 $25 Stop & Shop food cards each month -- $1,900 with Stop & Shop discount.
These, like the food bank, began after my public radio interviews. The bread and the cards and the food bank operate through Single Stop, a nonprofit that helps community college students in eight states sign up for food stamps and other social services.
Text messages announce the daily bread and food deliveries.
“Bananas and bread arriving in ten min.”
“Be there in one hour with salad, sandwiches, strawberries, tomatoes and bread. And bananas.”
Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and an advocate for helping low-income students complete college, is the inspiring lead in trying to gather data on the amount of hunger on college campuses. The Wisconsin Hope Lab, which she founded, joined the American Council on Education, the largest higher education lobby, in asking the U.S. Department of Education to gather information on hunger in college. That ACE has acknowledged the issue is a leap forward in this sad campaign.
A bit of progress is the brief squall of press before Christmas, when The New York Times published an op-ed by Goldrick-Rab and Katharine M. Broton, “Hungry, Homeless and in College.” The essay reported the new Hope Lab survey of 4,000 students at 10 community colleges -- more than half the students reported struggles with hunger and housing. (Click here to download the full report.)
A bit of hope yesterday, Wednesday morning. A group of friends gathered to consider a pilot lunch program for the poorest college students.
“My name is Brooke Evans. I am a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying philosophy. From 2010 to 2015, I was homeless and I did not know where my next meal was coming from.
“Without a home, without meals, I felt like a shameless impostor among my brilliant peers. I was shamefully worrying about food, and shamefully staring at the clock to make it out of class in time to get in line for the local shelter, when I should have been giving my undivided attention to the lecturer.”
Me? I am sticking with my proposal (click here) of one peanut butter sandwich per school day for each of the nine million students on a federal Pell Grant, the aid for low-income students in college. Why not, then, 45 million peanut butter sandwiches at colleges each week? Until we come up with a better idea.
I saw the sign-writing student the other day. She’s still in school.
Text message just now: “Be there in ten min. with bread, sandwiches and salads.”
Wick Sloane is an end user of a most highly selective higher education. Follow him on Twitter @WickSloane.