An Underappreciated Key to College Success: Sleep

Attention all you happy high school graduates about to go off to college, as well as the many others returning for another year of higher education. Grandsons Stefan and Tomas, that includes you.

Whatever you may think can get in the way of a successful college experience, chances are you won’t think of one of the most important factors: how long and how well you sleep. And not just on weekends, but every day, Monday through Sunday.

Studies have shown that sleep quantity and sleep quality equal or outrank such popular campus concerns as alcohol and drug use in predicting student grades and a student’s chances of graduating.

Although in one survey 60 percent of students said they wanted information from their colleges on how to manage sleep problems, few institutions of higher learning do anything to counter the devastating effects of sleep deprivation on academic success and physical and emotional well-being. Some, in fact, do just the opposite, for example, providing 24-hour library hours that encourage students to pull all-nighters.

(I did that only once, to study for an exam in freshman year, and fell asleep in the middle of the test. Lesson well learned!)

An all-nighter may help if all you have to do is memorize a list, but if you have to do something complex with the information, you’ll do worse by staying up all night, J. Roxanne Prichard, an expert on college sleep issues, told me. After being awake 16 hours in a row, brain function starts to decline, and after 20 hours awake, you perform as if legally drunk, she said.

Many college-bound kids start out with dreadful sleep habits that are likely to get worse once the rigorous demands of college courses and competing social and athletic activities kick in.

I’ve yet to meet a parent whose teenage child, especially if male, doesn’t sleep until 11 a.m. or later on weekends, throwing their circadian clock out of whack in a perpetual struggle to make up for a serious midweek sleep debt. It’s as if they travel across three or more time zones every weekend, then spend Monday through Friday recovering from performance-robbing jet lag.

In the process, they knock out of whack one in 20 genes governed by a circadian rhythm. The substances produced by those genes are not released at the right times and the body fails to perform at its best. Both cognitive and physical abilities are likely to suffer. In a study at Stanford University, when men’s varsity basketball players got an optimal amount of sleep, their free-throw and three-point field goal percentages increased significantly.