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Why Students Don't Value School

Mises Daily: Tuesday, September 12, 2006 by

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This is my first week of teaching as a full-time faculty member and not as an adjunct or TA. While most of the new experiences have been positive, I'm seeing things in a new light. The most intriguing facet of my new "education" experience is confirmation that economists do indeed think and act differently than "normal" folk.

Being fresh out of grad school, I often times feel as though I have a unique perspective; able to think like a student and teacher all at the same time. Unfortunately, my experience with current undergrads is proving me wrong.

During my first-day soapbox session, I ranted on and on about the virtues of things such as class participation, studying, group work, taking advantage of extra help, etc. While I am an eternal optimist, I know deep down this message is mostly ignored. However, I continued on with my rant to include the phrase, "Delivering what you've paid for." Now I realize that my salary is not specifically tied to class attendance and actual dollars paid; but indirectly, student's tuition is in fact my main source of income.

My realization came to me at approximately 1:38 PM. At this point in the class, I had spent the previous 38 minutes doing introductions, and explaining every last detail of the syllabus. At this point, approximately 50% of the class started to pack up their material in preparation for an early departure. While it was disappointing, it did provide me my first non soap-box rant opportunity to show students how seriously I considered the value of academic rigor. The first thing I did was shoot the meanest, dirtiest look I could to the offending students. Apparently the "teacher look" is a skill I have yet to master. So I did the next logical thing, I threw my arms in the air yelling, "whoaaaaaaaa." I don't know if it was the volume, tone, or crazy arms, but this seemed to work. They sat back down; I ranted, and then finished my lecture.

Around midnight the realization of the perverse nature of classroom utility hit me: students would be happier if I didn't show up. It wasn't just my class, it's all classes. Nearly all students welcome the absence of their teachers, and subsequent cancellation of class.

This is logical in some settings — for instance the day of a hard exam — but for the most part seems quite irrational. Irrational by my values, of course! To that point, I just have to consider the fact that students are not well-informed enough to be disappointed about the cancellation of class. To be clear, this theory does break down. I'm simply referring to sporadic unexpected class dismissals, not constant ones.

I have several explanations for this theory. The first is that college education is not viewed as a privilege; it is often times taken for granted. As with high school, students are no longer worried about graduating. Graduating after four years is simply given, and classes along the way are a necessary evil interfering with an awesome four-year party.

Along those same lines is the reasoning for my second explanation: unexpected fun. When students realize they have a free hour, they're overwhelmed with the many opportunities for fun that previously did not exist. This amazing amount of "feel-goodedness," almost always outweighs the cost of attending class.


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I attribute a large part of this phenomenon to the climate of the region. In the temperate state of Iowa, kids grow up with the anticipation of the two best words to be uttered upon waking up each winter morning: snow day. The difference is obvious. The result of a snow day is obvious fun: playing in the snow! Unfortunately, snow is only around part of the year, and most 18-22 year olds have made their quota of snowpersons. Still, this feeling of possible unexpected fun lingers, even if students fill the time honing their video game skills.

This leads me to my final explanation: the rising price of college. Because the price of attending a four-year institution has increased so much faster than inflation, nearly all students are unable to afford school on their own. In fact, nearly all students rely on financial aid in the form of scholarships and loans to finance their education. In the case of loans, the actual payment for education is timed accounting style. That is, persons pay for school while they're reaping the benefits of higher education. This total disregard for actual cost skews the current cost-benefit analysis within the minds of students.

Originally, my overall goal for this semester was to foster economic thought, and less negative feelings towards the dismal science. Now I can add one more specific goal for the semester: making students demand the education they've paid for.


Tim Meyer teaches economics at Buena Vista University. Send him mail. Comment on the blog.