As much as I'd like to leave this as a comment, I just can't. So here's a semi-rant but very informative piece of an American student's experience, and why we don't spend as much time studying as we may have 20-30 years ago.
As a full-time student with parents who have fallen into essentially infinite debt due to tax and bankruptcy laws, I have zero financial support in college. My tuition and living expenses are about $18,000 per year and yet, amazingly, my federal + state aid totals about $12,000 per year (and this is 90% loans!). Yay America!
I had academic excellence scholarships my first two years, but when I transferred universities I lost the ability to obtain scholarships; the reason remains obfuscated to me to this day; universities are businesses!
So where does that leave me? Approximately $6,000 per year in deficit to my institution. I am incredibly fortunate to have chosen a major which has led me, after two years of hard work, to have two part-time jobs at approximately $14/hour each after taxes. I work these two jobs a total of 30-40 hours per week in order to pay off this deficit.
Now, imagine a full-time student who is in class 15 hours per week, with 10-20 hours per week of homework, working 30-40 hours per week to pay for school. The total? Approximately 60 hours per week spent on school and work, and not counting study time.
I satisfy the minimum requirements for my courses and work - I do my homework and work and pass my tests; believe me, I'd love to spend time studying more what I care about, but time does not permit. I am a lucky one in that I seemingly absorb information like a sponge and I don't have to spend time studying in order to satisfy university requirements. Others? They unfortunately have to spend 10+ hours per week studying to remember what they learned.
The point is, Americans in general have more financial assistance nowadays than before; ironically, the cost to students is much higher. Thus, many students like me need to work to afford school (even after taking out the maximum of federal loans per semester). In needing to work to afford school, we become trapped in a self-fulfilling prophecy - students study less, care less about school, and drop out more, even though the cost (economically and personally) is more.
I study less because I have to do more to be able to go to school. I know that many others are in the exact same situation as me: less time caring about school and more time working part-time minimum-wage jobs to afford the ever-increasing tuition and living costs.
This is the current state of American public higher education, and it is not fun.
Edit: The issue of financial aid and taxes was brought up in the comments on this answer, so I'd like to talk about that in terms of the typical student.
Financial aid can be broken down into 4 basic parts:
- Usually privately funded by individuals or organizations
- Essentially "free money" (well, you worked for it in high school, so technically not "free")
- Usually funded by the federal government, state governments, or non-profit organizations
- Usually need-based or promoting disadvantaged prospective students
- This really is free money (for the student)
- Funded by the federal government or private entities
- Paid for by the student (generally after graduation)
- This is the opposite of free money. Loan servicers make thousands of dollars off the interest.
- Funded by the students' family members or themselves
In my particular case, I receive $0/year in scholarships because I transferred universities and am no longer eligible to receive them; I receive about $1,500 per year in grants (the Pell Grant, specifically) because my parents make decent but not great money (middle class Americans); I borrow $10,500 per year in federal loans, and I fund the other $6,000 or so with my own personal finances.
The problem is that when this deficit occurs - when #1-#3 don't cover the entire cost of tuition + living expenses - it's up to the student or their family to pay it, and on time. Unfortunately, you can't just owe the university money when you graduate and pay it like a medical bill over time. You have to pay it up front or you don't get to register for classes; incidentally, if you don't register for classes for 6 months, you have to start paying your loans!
Like my family, the $6,000 per year to cover one child's education just isn't there. Most families I know don't even have $1,000 to spare, including mine. Thus, the student must take on the additional responsibility of working - and working a lot - because most jobs available to undergraduate students pay minimum wage. With some basic math, at $8/hour a student would need to work 15 hours/week year-round in order to make $6,000 to pay university costs. That is not time spent studying.
Even if I received the $6,000 per year in scholarships I was receiving at my first institution, I would still be borrowing $10,500 per year in loans. 4 years of that and the total debt after interest nears $47,000 and the interest continues to accrue during the repayment period. I am fortunate to be majoring in Computer Science, so I have very good job prospects to pay back such a balance. Others may not be so fortunate.
As James mentioned in a comment, it seems that I was implying that we should increase the available financial aid (which would mostly be loans). In fact, we should instead work to solve the crisis of public education in America by reducing tuition costs. As mentioned, taxes play a big part in that.
I'm no expert, but it seems to me that cutting our $600 billion military budget by $50 billion to add to our currently $70 billion education budget would immediately solve a lot of problems for American students. Relieve the pressure from students to put themselves tens of thousands of dollars in debt to get a bachelor's degree and maybe we would have more time to study. But I'll leave that project to the budget board that drives the future of our country.