As college students return to campus in the coming weeks, they’ll be showered in the usual handouts of coupons, condoms and credit cards. But some schools are also giving students what a growing body of research reveals could make a huge difference in their college careers: ear plugs, sleep shades and napping lessons.
College health officials are finally realizing that healthy sleep habits are a potential miracle drug for much of what ails the famously frazzled modern American college student: anxiety, depression, health problems and — more than most students realize — academic troubles. Some studies have found students getting adequate sleep average a full letter grade higher than those who don’t.
But adolescent biorhythms make it hard enough for college students to get the sleep they need, a recommended nine hours. On top of that, campus life turns out to resemble a giant laboratory experiment designed for maximum sleep deprivation: irregular schedules, newfound freedom, endless social interaction, loud and crowded housing, late-night exercise and food washed down by booze, coffee and energy drinks. Campuses pulsing with energy at midnight by midafternoon resemble Zombie U., with students dozing off in library chairs, on yoga mats and even in coffee shops.
Technology isn’t helping, with wireless Internet adding to the 24/7 distractions and students sleeping with their smart phones on. That likely helps explain data showing college students got about eight hours of sleep in the 1960s and ’70s, seven by the ’80s, and, according to more recent surveys, closer to six these days.
Campaigning last week, even President Barack Obama told some students at an Ohio State University diner that he assumed “you guys have arranged it so you don’t have really early morning classes.” No such luck. “Actually, I failed that,” one student replied, telling the president he had one at 8 a.m. the next day.
Now, some counselors and health officials are trying to get the message out in creative ways.
At tiny Hastings College in Nebraska, student peer educators plop down a bed in the middle of the student union, dress themselves in pajamas, and talk to passers-by about sleep. Macalester College in Minnesota publishes a “nap map” listing the pros and cons of various campus snooze sites.
And many schools are offering seminars on napping (basic lesson: short naps work better).
The University of Louisville is even planning a campus-wide “flash nap” — think of a flash mob but with sleeping, not dancing — later in the school year (“We have to arrange in it advance so our public safety folks know it’s not an epidemic of something,” said director of health promotion Karen Newton).
Still, given the scope of sleeping problems, what’s surprising is that such efforts are exceptional. Major, campus-wide campaigns appear rare or nonexistent.
Experts say professors (and doctors) aren’t always good sleep role models.
As for deans and administrators, many seem hesitant to tell parents who’ve just dropped $50,000 on tuition that the big push on campus this year will be for everyone to sleep more.
While awareness is growing, at most schools sleep efforts amount to a few posters on campus or perhaps a few lines in a quickly forgotten talk during orientation week.