An Underappreciated Key to College Success: Sleep

College students who fail to adopt more wholesome sleep habits are more likely to find themselves unable to handle their chosen course load and less likely to reach their academic potential, according to a national study of more than 55,000 college students.

The study, by Monica E. Hartmann and Dr. Prichard of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., found that for each additional day of sleep disturbance a college student experienced each week, the likelihood of dropping a course rose by 10 percent and grade point average fell by 0.02, even when most other factors known to influence academic success were taken into account.

“One in every three or four students nationally fails to graduate,” Dr. Prichard said in an interview. “If their sleep were improved, their likelihood of graduating would too. Nothing gets worse with better sleep, and a lot of things get better.”

Dr. Prichard, a professor of psychology and neuroscience and scientific director of the university’s Center for College Sleep, said the sleep habits of college students represent “a major public health crisis” that institutions of higher learning pay little attention to. Of 26 risks to well-being that colleges consider important to inform students about, sleep ranks second to last, just above internet addiction, she said.

“There’s definitely room for improvement in educating students about sleep,” Dr. Prichard said in an interview. “If all you do is ask students how they’re sleeping, chances are they’ll say ‘great’ because they’re so chronically sleep-deprived, they can fall asleep anywhere!”

When Dr. Prichard, who had been studying rats, began teaching college full time, she said she witnessed firsthand the “delirium and exhaustion of students struggling to stay awake” and switched her research attention to college students, looking to identify the factors that most influenced their lack of good quality sleep.

“I was surprised to discover that feeling stressed was the main reason for poor student sleep, while consumption of alcohol and caffeine were not significant predictors of sleep quality,” she said based on a study of 1,125 college students she and co-authors published in 2010 in the Journal of Adolescent Health. “Lots of students are suffering from depression, anxiety and A.D.H.D., all of which can be symptoms of sleep deprivation or worsened by it.”

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