June 2017
Dr. Roxanne Prichard and Birdie Cunningham

It’s not news that college students aren’t always getting good sleep, but the Center for College Sleep at the University of St. Thomas is discovering that this lack of good sleep has real impacts on student success.

College students are uniquely vulnerable to bad sleep habits. Dr. Roxanne Prichard, scientific director at the Center for College Sleep and associate professor of neuroscience and psychology, describes what students are facing as a “perfect storm.” “Students have a biological delay in their circadian rhythm — so they want to sleep in and stay up late; they are on their own for first time and often there is a campus climate that is actually promoting bad sleep,” Prichard said. “These all contribute to students not getting good sleep.”

This lack of sleep is not just a harmless rite of passage for college students — it affects how they fare in their daily lives. “Inadequate sleep has a negative impact on GPA and course withdrawals on par with marijuana use and high-risk drinking,” Prichard said of her research with Dr. Monica Hartmann. “On average, each additional day per week a student experiences sleep problems raises the probability of dropping a course by 10 percent and lowering their cumulative GPA by 0.02. Also, students with poor sleep report more anxiety and depression symptoms than their well-rested peers.”

The good news is that there are things students, professors and institutions can do to change campus sleep culture. First thing students can do is become aware of their sleep and the benefits of good sleep. Birdie Cunningham, director of operations and programming at the Center for College Sleep, highlights resources that do just this. “The online College Sleep Questionnaire gives feedback to students on nine specific measures of their sleep health,” Cunningham said. “It also provides practical advice to improve sleep.”

Faculty can also positively affect students’ sleep. For example, they can adjust turn-in times — having assignments due at 6 p.m. rather than midnight. They can also directly work with students who show signs of poor sleep. “Professors should talk with students who are falling asleep in class,” Prichard said. “About 15 percent of students fall asleep in class more than once a week; talking with these students about sleep would be a great first step.”

Colleges can also change how students sleep by doing an assessment of the sleep culture on campus and then making sure students who want more information about sleep can get it. Surveys have shown sleep is the number two requested health topic by students, yet it’s the second to last topic that students report getting information about. “It’s the biggest gap in information wanted and information received,” Prichard said. “Schools should make sure their students have access to information about the importance of sleep.”

By Tom Lancaster