High levels of sleep deprivation among college students aren't a secret. People turn into zombies during finals week and live off coffee. That's nothing new. But how bad exactly is the situation at my school, the University of Southern California (USC), a front runner in the race for America's most expensive university? That's what I wanted to know. So I asked.
Two weeks ago, I wrote a post in the Facebook group of my graduation class, asking the members if any of them had ever experienced severe sleep deprivation, and if they were willing to share their story with me. Half an hour later, my inbox was full.
"I once went three nights only sleeping two hours the first night," one of my peers wrote. "I stayed awake for almost 60 hours last week," another one wrote. "Ask literally anyone in Viterbi," the engineering school, someone commented. Those are just a few examples of the massive response I got.
"Those negative effects, like drowsiness or lack of attention is something about 39.1 percent of USC's student body experiences."
"I usually get about four hours of sleep [on a weeknight]," David Bloch, a sophomore at USC told me. "It's not like I do it on purpose, I just like to get all the work done at once," he said. "And if it's a lot of work, I stay up a day or two, the most I've ever done was five days." Bloch doesn't look tired, maybe because of the energy drinks or the three to four cups of green tea he drinks. He calls those his "helpers." "I only use them strategically, when I need to stay awake and when my body is getting tired," Bloch said. Otherwise, he tries to stay healthy by working out and meditating to battle the negative effects of sleep deprivation.
Those negative effects, like drowsiness or lack of attention is something about 39.1 percent of USC's student body experiences. This is the percentage of students that said in a survey from the American College Health Association that they think sleepiness is "more than just a little problem" for them. In that same survey from 2014, 21 percent said they find it hard to handle sleep difficulties, 25 percent felt tired during the day for five or more days a week. For a little bit over four percent sleepiness was "a very big problem."
That means almost half of the student body at USC is significantly impacted by the lack of sleep they get - numbers that may seem surprising to outsiders, but not to students, professors and health counselors that are aware of the "crazy competitive environment," as Bloch calls it, at this school. High academic standards, the push for internships and extracurricular achievements are something students experience here on a day to day basis.
"When I look at the amount of stress and pressure on young adults today versus ... ten years ago, I think it has really intensified," said Kelly Greco, a student counseling services therapist at USC who has worked at the school for the last decade. Many students come into her office with sleep-related issues. "There's so many factors and variables contributing to that," Greco said, "maybe someone feels like they have to succeed because they want to make their family happy, or maybe they have this internal drive to be the best of the best, or take advantage of every minute of the day because I'm paying for this education, or a lot of times people tell me 'I'm afraid I'm going to miss something.'" Sometimes, it's all of the above. According to Greco, people forget "you can't be the best you can if you can't see clearly because you're so groggy and sleepy."
"For years now, we've been hearing how the administration wants us to be "the Stanford of Southern California," and "Ivy League-level school." The best of the best, nothing less."
However, this push for being the best you can is an attitude very well reflected not only by USC's student body but as well by the school's administration. In an interview with Los Angeles Magazine, the university's president C. L. Max Nikias said "the ultimate goal [is] to really set up this university academically, where there is no question that we belong in that pantheon of elite universities." For years now, we've been hearing how the administration wants us to be "the Stanford of Southern California," and "Ivy League-level school." The best of the best, nothing less.
At what price will it come? That our parents' bank accounts are going to be affected became evident when the administration announced in March that tuition is going to jump by almost $2,000 to a staggering $51,442 per year. According to information from the U.S. News & World Report, so far Vassar College in New York has been the most expensive school with a price tag of $51,300. We have now surpassed that.
Making families pay more to meet the administration's ambitious goals is one thing. Raising academic standards at the expense of student health is another.
Now, the administration is trying to meet student's health needs. The program Mindful USC tries to raise awareness on health issues, such as sleep deprivation, and offer classes on stress reduction, among other topics that urgently need to be addresses. Students who prefer individual counseling can meet with a therapist like Greco at the Student Counseling Services office.
"Making families pay more to meet the administration's ambitious goals is one thing. Raising academic standards at the expense of student health is another."
However, the counseling center "utilizes a short-term model to help students cope with the challenges of college life such as adjustment difficulties, academic related stress and relationship problems," as it said on its website. For long term counseling on mental health or sleep deprivation, students have to reach out to outside therapists, services that aren't complimentary. The classes that Mindful USC offers are, as said on its official website, all filled "due to overwhelming demand."
"Sleep is a huge contributor to how someone is managing their stress," Greco said. More academic stress, more financial pressure - that's a breeding ground for sleep deprivation. "I worry that students don't prioritize their sleep," Greco said.
To end the worrying of counselors, parents and among ourselves, there's actually more the school's administration could do, besides increasing resource availability.
"How sleep deprived you are depends on the first obligation in the morning," Shelley Hershner, a neurologist at University of Michigan's sleep lab, said. "The time of melatonin creation is delayed in young adults," she said. Melatonin is the body's natural hormone that makes us sleepy. When the production is delayed, like among college students, we stay up later and sleep longer in the morning. If we have class at 8 a.m., we won't get all the sleep we need to be well rested. Could later classes help balance off our delayed sleep schedules? "Absolutely," Hershner said. However, she hasn't "seen any interest in universities to look at the timing of their classes."
"Could later classes help balance off our delayed sleep schedules?"
Instead, students pull all-nighters to get homework, projects and essays done and still be in time for early morning classes. "I have friends that pull one to two all-nighters on a weekly basis," Bloch said. Last semester, he was enrolled in 20 units, pursued a degree in two majors, and worked at his job for five to six hours a week. "I stayed up for 48 hours straight at least once a week."
This semester, he's trying to be more healthy, gets more sleep, takes "only" 16 units - a normal course load - and works less hours. He still only sleeps an average of four to six hours only every night, by far not enough to be well rested. You think that's a lot? Doesn't surprise me.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.