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 UCLA. 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. Saxon, 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." They might be able to study less if they focus on that as the outcome, rather than on learning, which would take more time, she said.
The study showed that 46% of college freshmen reported having earned A averages in high school, the highest share ever, and up from a low of 18% 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% in the 2001 report.
The survey first asked the number of hours spent studying in 1987, when 47% had done so for six hours or more.
Rebecca Adler, 18, a Caltech freshman from St. Louis, said the report's findings sounded right to her.
At her high school last year, she said, top students were adept at "outsmarting the system" and "figuring out the number of points you need to get the grade you want."
They "were not interested in understanding the material; they just wanted to jump through the hoops to get the biscuit," Adler said.
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 experiences in the last year of high school.
Several other survey findings seem tied to competitive college admissions, Saxon said.
Record numbers said they had used college guidebooks, applied to multiple schools and participated in controversial early-admission programs, in which colleges typically admit students months in advance of other applicants if they pledge to attend the school.
Students also are taking more Advanced Placement courses, which are based on a system of bonus grade points and standardized tests that can be taken for college credit, according to the survey.
And more students seem to stack their Advanced Placement courses in their junior year or first semester of their senior year, so those courses can be included on transcripts to colleges.
Such scheduling and early acceptances might prompt a quicker onset of the age-old "senioritis" malady, in which students slow down once a college acceptance is in hand -- contributing to the fewer hours of studying.
High school seniors are "working harder, earlier. The senior year is now more compressed into the first semester," said Bruce Poch, vice president and dean of admissions at Pomona College.
The "senior slump" aside, Poch is among many educators who think grade inflation is increasing.
More and more, teachers are pressured to give more A's, and college-bound students believe they can't afford anything less, say students, college officials and education researchers.
"Kids are more paranoid; parents are more paranoid," Poch said.
In such an environment, "teachers are feeling more heat. Kids need the A, and teachers don't want to have to fight or argue on a daily basis. They don't want to deal with parents if they don't give a kid an A."
Poch said he asks high schools to provide grade lists for all students in specific courses.
At one prestigious Los Angeles prep school, which he asked not to be identified, Poch said he had found every student in an English class earned either an A or an A-minus.
"Without a doubt, they are a very talented group of kids, but this takes Lake Wobegon to another level," he said jokingly, referring to the fictional town where all children are above average.
At her high school, Caltech freshman Adler said she thought the increase in AP courses also had the paradoxical effect of making some courses easier for a generation raised on standardized tests.
Her calculus teacher, she said, taught from an Advanced Placement exam guide, and her assignments were photocopies of the tests from the guide.
But teachers "have to give up a lot of license to teach in a creative way," Adler said.
Kameela Rasheed, a Pomona College freshman from Menlo Park, said the hectic routine of preparing for college leaves little time for informal intellectual pursuits.
Rasheed said she was unusual among her high school peers in having spent time reading Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and researching graffiti as art, a personal interest.
Friends spent their spare time on extracurricular activities that they could list on their college applications, and asked her why she should read so much on her own when they "read enough in my regular classes."
Indeed, the freshman survey suggests fewer students read for pleasure in high school. This year, 26% said they do not read for pleasure at all, compared with 20% in 1994, when the question was first asked.
Despite the apparent pressure to succeed in the college game, this year's survey showed a slight drop in the percentage of students feeling "overwhelmed." The percentage frequently overwhelmed fell to 27% from 28% last year.
The percentage of students who reported feeling frequently depressed also dropped, to a record low 7.5%.
Other noteworthy findings in this year's survey:
A record-high number of students, 45%, agreed that military spending should increase, more than double the 21% response of 1993, the last time the question was asked.
That reflects security concerns in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the study said.
Drinking, smoking and partying declined, continuing a trend of several years; a record-high percentage, 47%, are likely to get a job during college to help pay for tuition and expenses; and interest in studying arts and law increased, while interest in business fell.