College Student Sleep Statistics

Check out the numbers on how well (or badly) college students sleep.

By Loren Bullock

College students lacking sleep is often the butt of some morbid jokes, but it is quickly becoming an epidemic. From studying to partying, a lack of sleep seems like an inevitable part of the college experience. But how common is it really? What are the stats?

We’ll breakdown just how sleep deprived college students are by category, talk about the effects of their sleep deprivation, and discuss how they can improve some of these habits.

Tired student

College Students and Poor Sleep: The Stats

Sleep researchers recommend that you get an average of 7-9 hours of sleep per night; the average college student gets less than 7 hours of sleep a night. Here are more staggering statistics about the sleep habits of college students:

  • 68% of college students report that stress due to academics or personal issues keeps them from falling asleep at night.
  • 20% of college students will pull at least one all-nighter per month.
  • 35% of students report staying up until around 3 a.m. at least one night every week.
  • 30% of female and 18% of male college students report suffering from insomnia at least once in the past 90 days
  • Freshmen are 14% more likely to suffer bad grades due to sleep loss and drop a class.
  • About 30-35 percent of college students in the United States nap, but napper typically sleep less overall than non-nappers.

Journal of Adolescent Health, 2009

Sleep Health Journal, 2018

Why Sleep is Crucial for Students

Of course, sleep is one of those basic things we need to survive. But flying under the recommended amount of sleep won’t do you any favors. Lack of sleep adversely affects your mood, appetite, recall, concentration, and even reaction time. When it comes to students and sleep deprivation, it can have an impact on grades as well as both physical and mental health.

Memory and Academic Performance

College students are one of those age groups that don’t put the importance of sleep over the importance of grades. What they may not realize is that good sleep and good academic performance are intertwined.

As previously mentioned, sleep deprivation can affect recall, which is a major piece of the puzzle in academic performance. In fact, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, college students who pull all nighters are at a higher risk for a lower GPA.

The problem with lack of sleep lies with memory transfer. As you rest, your short-term memories are turned into long-term memories, meaning what you learned throughout the day in class or studying live in your short-term memory. As you sleep, those get stored so you can continue to recall them. Repeated nights of short sleep result in not all of the short-term memories get a chance to transfer and you are left forgetful.

Not only that, but lack of sleep can hurt your academic performance just as much as excessive alcohol intake and drug use.

Physical Health

Plain and simple: sleep loss leads to lowered immune function. College students who are sleep deprived are more likely to get sick due to the lack of cytokine production. Cytokines are proteins sent out by the immune system that help fight infection.

Other sleep deprivation effects that hurt your physical health include

  • High blood pressure
  • Obesity
  • Clumsiness

Mental Health

Mental health is just as if not more important than physical health, especially in college students. Mental health professionals at the University of Georgia cite lack of sleep as a source of stress, anxiety, and depression in college students. College students with sleep disorders such as  insomnia have significantly more mental health problems than college students without.

On the other hand, sleep issues can be an indicator for a larger mental health problem. Insomnia or too much sleep can be a sign of depression. Racing thoughts that keep you up or shortness of breath while attempting to fall asleep can be a sign of anxiety.

How Students Can Sleep Better

Luckily, there are a few things that college students can do to take back control of their sleep habits.

  • Have a bedtime wind down routine: Routine helps your body memorize what to do, so try to do the same thing every night. Take a hot shower. Read a calming book or listen to a podcast. Wear you favorite sleep mask or noise cancelling headphones. Try to go to bed and wake up around the same time every day.
  • Limit alcohol before bed: Alcohol may help you fall asleep, but sleeping with alcohol in your system leads to poor, restless sleep.
  • Limit use of electronics before bed: While it may be hard to separate yourself from your laptop or phone before bed, but it will be worth it for quality sleep. Screens emit a blue light that trick your brain into thinking it’s still daytime, so your body doesn’t release sleep hormones on time.
  • Find out if you have a sleep disorder: Undiagnosed disordered sleeping can be a major reason that some college students are sleep deprived. Insomnia, obstructive sleep apnea, and restless leg syndrome can make it so students are drowsy all day.
  • Choose later classes: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that students not be in school before 8:30 a.m. College students often get to choose their own schedule, so don’t sign up for that 8 a.m. if you don’t have to.

Should Sleep Classes be Required?

Harvard is tackling this sleep deprivation problem with a new class on proper sleep that was introduced in the summer of 2018 for incoming freshman.

Sleep 101 is a short but informative interactive online module that incoming freshman are now required to take before they arrive for their first night on campus. It’s not a new program, but instead has been being crafted for years as part of the Sleep Matters Initiative with the goal of improving a toxic sleep culture in colleges. This class is designed to:

  • Teach students about sleep’s impact on health, performance, and safety
  • Provide tips on maintaining a healthy sleep schedule

During this module, students learn why sleep is important and exactly how insufficient sleep negatively impacts their lives. They are introduced to proper sleep hygiene, with information on how screen time, exercise, and food can impact sleep. They’re even informed about the positives and negatives of using caffeine as a replacement for sleep.

Researchers have already conducted a study on the effects of Sleep 101. In a 2017 study published in the Southwest Journal of Pulmonary and Critical Care, students from four universities took Sleep 101 and later completed a voluntary survey. The results suggest that the course might help reduce the tendency to pull “all-nighters” or drive drowsy, and that it ultimately may help to reduce sleep problems among college students.

And as for students at Harvard specifically, wbur.org reported multiple positive experiences. One student reported that she was going to aim for a regular midnight to 8 A.M. sleep schedule, and another that he was going to try and avoid screen time 30 minutes before bed.

Sleep 101 has been used in more colleges than Harvard. It was piloted at over a dozen colleges, with the goal of reaching more college campuses in upcoming years. Hopefully the next few years will see Sleep 101 spreading to campuses across the nation. In this way, college students can learn to use sleep as a tool for their happiness and success, instead of seeing it as  hindrance.


Summary

College students are one of the age groups that gets the worst sleep due to academic stress, personal and emotional stress, pressure, and mental health issues. But sleep deprivation can lower your GPA, compromise your decision making, and actually get you sick. So try to practice better sleep habits: don’t pull all nighters to study, follow a routine, and keep your screens away at night.


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