01/29/2013 02:40 pm ET | Updated Mar 31, 2013

A Challenge to College Students for 2013: Don't Waste Your 6,570

With the month of January coming to a close, there is nothing less needed than another essay on resolutions for 2013, but how about a challenge? Something to awaken us from the somnambulance of habit -- habits borne of thousands of years of "academic tradition" and inexorable human apathy:

Don't waste your 6,570 in 2013.

Here is the simple equation:

We all begin the New Year completely equal in one way. We all have the same amount of time (unless we "cross the bar" unexpectedly). If we multiply our 365 days by 18 waking hours, we have 6,570 hours to spend wisely. Or not.

As a college educator for nearly three decades, my experience indicates that students spend less and less of their time at academic pursuits. Emerging empirical evidence affirms my inklings: College students' academic effort has dramatically declined in recent decades. As Arum and Roska pointed out in their groundbreaking book, Academically Adrift, individual-level surveys of student time use from the 1920s to today confirm that there is a steady, progressive decline in the amount of time students spend on their studies. Is higher education in America headed for a cerebral cliff?

Studies have found that full-time college students through the early 1960s spent roughly 40 hours per week on academic pursuits (i.e., combined studying and class time); at which point a steady decline ensued throughout the following decades. Today, full-time college students on average report spending only 27 hours per week on academic activities -- that is, less time than a typical high school student spends at school.

Average time studying fell from 25 hours per week in 1961 to 20 hours per week in 1981 and 13 hours per week in 2003.

The trends are even more pronounced when Babcock and Marks identify the percentage of students who report studying more than 20 hours per week: in 1961, 67 percent of full-time college students reported this level of effort; by 1981, the percentage had dropped to 44 percent; today, only one in five full-time college students report devoting more than 20 hours per week on studying. Babcock and Marks carefully explored the extent to which changes in student effort simply reflect the fact that different types of individuals currently attend college and course taking patterns have changed. They found that such compositional explanations were inadequate: "Study time fell for students from all demographic subgroups, within race, gender, ability and family background, overall and within major, for students who worked in college and for those who did not, and at four-year colleges of every type, size, degree structure and level of selectivity."

When I talk to students, parents and others about these statistics, no one is surprised. Many researchers have pointed out that as higher education adopts more business practices, it is inevitable that the student faculty relationship becomes more transactional. Students see their time in college much like the relationships in life. They commonly look to maximize the return on their investment of time, and scour the Web for information about professors who give "easy A's" and programs that hold the promise of employment without the rigor of a nuclear science degree. While these impulses are quintessentially human and surely understandable, we are left to wonder about the impact of this intellectual negligence.

When Arum and Roska sifted through years of research, one result was incontrovertible. They found that when faculty have high expectations and students took classes "where they had to read more than 40 pages a week and had to write more than 20 pages over the course of the semester, they improved their skills significantly more than did students lacking those experiences." They tested and retested a myriad of factors, from student demographic to institutional type, and the equation never changed. High faculty expectations + reading more than 40 pages per week and 20 pages per semester = improved critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills. The results are so conclusive that every education school in the country should require graduates to memorize it before conferring their degrees.

So the data shows that student learning and student study habits are headed in opposite directions, and with more and more colleges adopting business models, it seems that students will spend less of their 6,570 waking hours in 2013 pondering Marvell's (remarkable) poem about time, "To His Coy Mistress." Perhaps only history will reveal if we are now stuck in some academic swale, but this we know more students need to take pride in their cognitive development in the way that many of them do in their physical development. More faculty have to challenge students to reach their fullest academic potential by demanding more of them --and themselves. And more higher ed administrators must stay focused on mission rather than the bottom line; understanding that mission -- in part, a challenging, time-consuming, rigorous academic experience -- is the bottom line.

And that sound you hear, Marvell's "winged chariot," is time. Our 6,570 are already dwindling. Let's use them well.