A college freshman squirms anxiously on a chair in my office, his eyes avoiding mine, those of his English professor, as he explains that he hasn't finished his paper, which was due two days ago. "I just haven't had the time," he says.
"Do you hold down a job?""Only 30 hours a week."
"Do you have to work that much?"
"Yeah, I have to pay for my car."
"Do you really need a car?"
"Yeah, I need it to get to work."
This student isn't unusual. Indeed, he probably typifies today's college and high school students.
I have heard drugs blamed and television - that universal scapegoat. I have heard elaborate theories about the decline of the family, of religion, and of authority, as well as other sociological theories. But nobody blames student employment.
But such employment is a major cause of educational decline.
When I was in high school in the 1950s, students seldom held jobs. Some of us baby-sat, shoveled snow, mowed lawns, and delivered papers, and some of us got jobs in department stores around Christmas. But most of us had no regular source of income other than the generosity of our parents.
The only kids who worked regularly were poor. They worked to help their families. If I remember correctly, only about five people in my class of 170 held jobs. That was in a working-class town.
In contrast, in 1986, my daughter was one of the few students among juniors and seniors who didn't work. According to Bureau of Labor statistics, more than 40 percent of high school students were working in 1980, but sociologists Ellen Greenberger and Laurence Steinberg in "When Teenagers Work" came up with estimates of more than 70 percent working in 1986, though I suspect that the figure may be even higher now.
My daughter, however, did not work; her parents wouldn't let her. Interestingly, some of the students in her class implied that she had an unfair advantage over them in the classroom. They were probably right, for while she was home studying, they were pushing burgers, waiting on tables, or selling dresses 20 hours a week. Working students have little time for homework.
By the standards of my day, her classmates did not "have to" work. Yet many were working 20 to 30 hours a week. Why?
They worked so that they could spend $60 to $100 a week on designer jeans, rock concerts, stereo and video systems, and, of course, cars. They were living lives of luxury, buying items on which their parents refused to throw hard-earned money away.
Yet, according to Ms. Greenberger and Mr. Steinberg, only about a quarter of these students saved money for college or other long-term goals.
I know that students who work all evening aren't ready for studying when they get home from work. Moreover, because they work hard and have ready cash, they feel they deserve to have fun - instead of spending their free time studying.
Thus, by the time they get to college, most students look upon studies as a spare-time activity.
Clearly, individual students will pay the price for lack of adequate time studying, but the problem extends to schools and colleges that are finding it difficult to demand quantity or quality of work from students.
And perhaps our economy will continue to decline as full-time students from Japan and Europe continue to outperform our part-time students.