Are lazy undergrads hurting the economy?

Undergraduates spend more time with leisure and sports than studying. Economists can look at how students spend time in terms of a 'consumption vs. investment' tradeoff.

Fred Lynch / AP / File
In this Aug. 19, 2010 photo, Alicea Mahnken, left, of Perryville, Mo. and Julia Derr of Arnold, Mo. move in to their residence hall room at Southeast Missouri State University. Will the economy suffer from students spending more time with leisure activities than studies during college?

On page 4 of the The Education Life Section of the 4/17/2011 New York Times, there is a pie chart showing how full time college students age 15 to 49 spend an average weekday. Out of 24 hours each day; Activity #1: Sleep at 8.3 hours, #2 Leisure and sports (3.6 hours), #3 educational activities (3.3 hours), #4 working and related activities (3 hours), traveling (1.5 hours), eating and drinking (1 hour), grooming (.8 hours), other (2.5 hours).

As an educator, I'm interested in whether my students study. Let's look at the 3.3 hours devoted to educational activities. This adds up to 16.5 hours per week. If a student takes 4 courses per semester and if each class meets 3 hours a week (ignoring the possibility of a lab or a Teaching assistant review session), then this leaves 4.5 hours a week when a student is not in the class room but is engaging in educational activities. If this is the upper bound on studying, then the average student is studying roughly 52 minutes a weekday. What would the Tiger Mom say to that?

If learning begets learning and skill begets skill, is the U.S staying "mentally" fit and ready for global competition or are we enjoying too much leisure? This is the classic "consumption vs. investment" tradeoff that economists always discuss.

Are people in the U.S and Europe growing "intellectually fat and lazy"? This New Yorker piece by Evan Osnos offers some insights. He joins a Chinese middle class tour that travels to Europe as a group. The point of the article is to show the people of New York City (and other nerds who subscribe to this elitist magazine) how Chinese "regular Joes" view "us". The tourists make their first trip ever to Europe and they like the shopping. They don't like our food and they are amazed by the amount of leisure time that we appear to take for granted.

To quote the article;

"Li urged us to soak our feet in hot water before bed, to fight jet lag, and to eat extra fruit, which might balance the European infusion of bread and cheese into our diets. Since it was the New Year’s holiday, there would be many other Chinese visitors, and we must be vigilant not to board the wrong bus at rest stops. He introduced our driver, Petr Pícha, a phlegmatic former trucker and hockey player from the Czech Republic, who waved wearily to us from the well of the driver’s seat. (“For six or seven years, I drove Japanese tourists all the time,” he told me later. “Now it’s all Chinese.”) Li had something else to say about the schedule: “In China, we think of bus drivers as superhumans who can work twenty-four hours straight, no matter how late we want them to drive. But in Europe, unless there’s weather or traffic, they’re only allowed to drive for twelve hours!”

He explained that every driver carries a card that must be inserted into a slot in the dashboard; too many hours and the driver could be punished. “We might think you could just make a fake card or manipulate the records—no big deal,” Li said. “But, if you get caught, the fine starts at eighty-eight hundred euros, and they take away your license! That’s the way Europe is. On the surface, it appears to rely on everyone’s self-discipline, but behind it all there are strict laws.”"
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