Is college a full-time job?

Published 1:14 am Saturday, November 1, 2014


Full-time employment across the developed world is generally defined as 40 to 44 hours per week. The expectations are lower in some countries, such as France, where full-time employment is set at 35 hours per week. The typical college student in America, however, seems to follow a lighter schedule.

Because the federal government spends as much as $100 billion on higher education each year, it is concerned with student progress and performance. The federal government not only regulates the number of credit hours that financial aid recipients must complete each year, but also defines the amount of in-class and out-of-class time that defines a credit hour. For example, it is expected (according to the Code of Federal Regulations) that for every hour in class, students should do at least two hours of work outside of class—in reading, studying, etc.

In his Oct. 20, 2014, article in “The Chronicle of Higher Education,” Geoffrey Vaughan suggests—based on data from the National Survey of Student Engagement—that the typical college student today spends just under one hour of out-of-class time for each hour in class. Vaughan suggests that a typical student taking 15 hours of credit studies—with an additional 14 hours outside of class—produces a 29-hour work week. Instead of 40 hours constituting a full-time schedule, college students average 29 hours.

But it gets worse. Vaughan also notes that many of those hours are actually 50 minutes long. I would add that for many college students, the college calendar only runs 30 weeks per year. These data suggest that being a full-time student today is only a part-time job.

Granted, there are many college students who are working part-time to help pay the bills, and for these students, their academic life can be very complicated. Nevertheless, the evidence indicates that college students do not spend the amount of time studying that is expected by the Code of Federal Regulations. Taxpayers are not getting the level of academic commitment for which they are paying.

This picture suggests that college faculty have expectations that are too low, and/or that college students put a low priority on meeting these educational expectations. It is likely that both of these factors are playing a role. Also, it is likely that the situation will get worse. In college admissions, it is currently a buyer’s market.

In the current marketplace, colleges are struggling to attract students. The mature student with a long-term perspective will choose to attend the academic powerhouse that has a strong record of graduate school, professional school, and job placement. The less mature student will ignore these long-term goals and will choose to attend the school that enables the easiest route to completing the degree. In this buyer’s market, even the academic powerhouses will find themselves lowering their standards to attract enough students in order to remain financially viable.

The young-adult years represent a critical developmental stage. No one is arguing that college students should spend every waking minute on classroom assignments. Peer discussions, social engagements, and time to “chill” are all important maturing opportunities. My conversations with students, coaches, and advisors generally suggest that students who have more responsibilities (including part-time jobs, varsity athletics, and other extracurricular activities) tend to learn better time-management skills and to benefit more from the college experience. On the other hand, students who have “time to kill” generally find themselves spending uncontrollable marathons on activities such as computer games and social media.

Although the overall dynamics are complex, I want to emphasize this message to students, especially those students who have their family’s financial support: you are being granted a four-year gap period, a time in which you are not expected to directly contribute significantly to your financial obligations or to your society. Instead, you are expected to work diligently to further your education. When you complete your degree, you will be competing with others for employment. If you go through your college years investing only 29 hours per week, you will find other recent graduates who are more prepared and who are receiving the job offers that you are seeking. If you want to successfully compete for those limited jobs and limited graduate school opportunities, you need to go above and beyond your peers.

Being a full-time student is a privilege. Those who take advantage of that privilege will get the best opportunities. Investing in the future does not only mean getting the college diploma; it includes making wise choices throughout the college years, building the self-control, the habits, and the knowledge that will open doors of opportunities for the best-prepared young Americans. I challenge students to be full-time workers during the college years, rather than part-time students of only 29 hours per week.

Dr. Gary L. Welton is assistant dean for institutional assessment, professor of psychology at Grove City College, and a contributor to The Center for Vision & Values.