Today's college freshmen got more A's than ever in high school while studying a record low number of hours in their senior year, according to a national survey by the University of California, Los Angeles. But they may not be any smarter than those of past generations.
Instead, frenzied competition for college admission has inflated grades and trained students to become experts at winning A's, say the survey's director and college students and officials in Southern California.
"Students are more savvy about what it takes to get an A," said Linda J. Sax, the UCLA education professor who directed this year's American Freshman Survey, which has been tracking students' opinions and habits for 37 years.
In the classes she teaches, students now "focus more of their energies studying what it takes to get a grade; you might be able to study less than if you focus on that as your outcome, rather than learning, which would take more time," she said.
The study showed that 46 percent of college freshmen reported having earned A averages in high school, the highest share ever, and up from a low of 18 percent in 1968.
One-third of students this year reported having studied six or more hours a week during their last year of high school, down from a previous low of 35 percent in the 2001 report. The survey first asked the number of hours spent studying in 1987, when 47 percent had done so for six hours or more.
The survey, a joint project of the American Council on Education and UCLA's Education Research Institute, is the nation's oldest and most comprehensive assessment of student attitudes and behavior. More than 280,000 students at 437 four-year colleges and universities took this year's survey.
Because the survey is conducted very early in the freshman year, many responses reflect the last year of high school.
Several other survey findings seem tied to competitive college admissions, Sax said. Record numbers said they had used college guidebooks, applied to multiple schools and participated in early-admission programs, in which colleges typically admit students months in advance of other applicants if they pledge to attend the school.
The survey suggests that fewer students read for pleasure in high school. This year, 26 percent said they do not read for pleasure at all, compared with 20 percent in 1994, when the question was first asked.
Peter Y. Hong writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.