No Sleep Until Graduation: The College Crisis

Young woman sleeping on bed in student dorm, head resting on books
Young woman sleeping on bed in student dorm, head resting on books

Today, I rolled out of bed around noon. When I say rolled, I don't mean to suggest that I lazily peeled back the covers, got dressed, and began my day. I mean I barrel-rolled onto the floor. I mean I wiped off last night's mascara, put on a cleaner pair of sweatpants, and started typing. It was ugly, but it was effective. Coming into my second semester of college, "ugly, but effective" has become my mantra. Staying up until 3 a.m. studying for a 10 a.m. test - it's not pretty, but it gets the job done. Sure, you hear the occasional horror story about a friend of a friend who slept through all his midterms...let's observe a moment of silence for his GPA. Between school, work and social life, college students pretty much live from one espresso shot to the next. This is routine for many students, an integral part of the college experience they don't tell you about in orientation: "Welcome to the University of Whatever, where the health of our students is among our...top 50 concerns?"

To an extent, it would be unfair to blame colleges for this. The mentality of secondary education today is not the same as it was in the past. We do not study for the sake of learning, but for the sake of career-building. We get good grades to justify getting absolutely wasted on the weekends. College is a series of all-nighters, interrupted by midnight booty calls ("U up?") and having all your papers due the same week. I do not place the blame on colleges for this - they did not create hormones, nor did they make analyzing Marx and Engels' "The German Ideology" so frustratingly dense. In that respect, it is not the fault of our colleges that students, frankly, are not sleeping.


"Since students are unable to skip class, work, or meals, they choose to cut into their sleep schedule."

At the same time, it is impossible not to blame colleges for this. For one thing, the workload placed upon students is exceedingly challenging. Between attending class, work shifts, and tending to basic needs like eating and sleeping, there are few hours left for studying. A professor assigning 80 pages of reading over the course of two nights might seem reasonable, but couple that with a paper due for another class, a lab, a presentation, and 15-workbook pages on Chinese characters. The course load can be more than a little overwhelming. Since students are unable to skip class, work, or meals, they choose to cut into their sleep schedule.

It is also important to consider what options are made available to students in the way of staying healthy. For example, the school that I attend has a free health center available to all students. That said, it is also infamous for its understaffed counseling services. My school is one of hundreds that deals with this problem. This is an especially worrisome note given that, according to a recent study by the American College Health Association, mental health problems for college students are on the rise; 33 percent of students surveyed reported feeling severe depression last year and nearly 55 percent reported "overwhelming" anxiety. Now more than ever, there is an increased pressure to succeed - the only thing rising faster than the competition for jobs after graduation is the cost of college tuition, an investment that students obviously want to see a return on. The result is a combination of stress and poor health habits, leading to mental health problems. The college system is consistently failing to provide its students with the help they need, while increasing the demands placed upon students. About the only thing we, as students, have the power to change is how we choose to approach it.


"Your GPA doesn't define you any more than your fraternity affiliation does. Your body and your mental wellbeing are infinitely more important than your grades."

To those who are applying college as well as my fellow undergraduates, I would like to share this important lesson that I am only recently beginning to grasp myself: you need to chill out. Go to sleep. Stay in for once - it won't kill you. While in truth this is not necessarily the college experience I, along with so many others, had expected, it is nonetheless a positive one, so long as one is able to see past the allure of having a Starbucks on campus and friends with fake ID's. The workload is huge - much more than high school - and a few (dozen) late nights are bound to happen in the name of getting that degree, but don't let that become your life. If you're going to lose sleep, make sure it's worth it. Your GPA doesn't define you any more than your fraternity affiliation does. Your body and your mental wellbeing are infinitely more important than your grades.

This post is part of our series on sleep culture on college campuses. To join the conversation and share your own story, please email our Director of College Outreach Abby Williams directly at abigail.williams@huffingtonpost.com. And you can find out here if the #SleepRevolution College Tour will be visiting your campus, and learn how you can get involved. If your college is not one of the colleges already on our tour and you want it to be, please get in touch with Abby.