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.
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