College students are more than “just tired”


Webster psychology student Maribeth Wagganer’s own struggle with college-induced sleep deprivation inspired her to research how “pink noise” can be used to improve college students’ sleep quality. Coursework, extracurriculars, jobs and social activities can leave college students with little time to sleep, but staying up all night to cram before an exam, chugging an energy drink or taking a power nap cannot replace a good night’s rest.

College students only sleep an average of 6-6.9 hours per night, as noted in Wagganer’s study. In February, a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that, for every lost hour of sleep at the start of the academic term, a student’s end-of-term GPA drops up to 0.07 points, with even more dramatic results when students sleep less than six hours a night. 

Dr. Raman Malhotra, Washington University neurology professor and Sleep Medicine Fellowship program director, explained that sleep is critical for concentration and attention span, and losing sleep over time builds “sleep debt,” which is the difference between needed sleep and actual sleep. However, college students still face pressure to stay up late.

“We tend to think, ‘Okay, if I can stay up later to get my project done or study for that test, that I’m going to do better because I studied longer,’” Dr. Malhotra said. “But really, sleep is very important for learning and memory and being able to retrieve those memories the next day. Although it may seem like you’re studying longer, you’re actually not allowing the brain to take all that information . . . Pulling that all-nighter is a little bit counterproductive.”

Wagganer’s 2022 Research Across Disciplines (RAD) presentation explores the issue of college student sleeplessness. Wagganer said that students struggling with sleep deprivation are often dismissed due to stereotypes about college students always being tired, but they still face real mental and physical consequences as a result. 

“Sleep is very important. That’s what keeps our body moving every single day, especially when it comes to academic performance,” Wagganer said. “I don’t think we should brush it under the rug and be like, ‘Oh, they’re just tired.’”

Wagganer’s RAD presentation offered a chance to explore the correlation between anxiety and sleep deprivation. When she learned about “pink noise,” or fractal noise, she wondered if listening to it would help college students calm their anxieties and sleep better. She is also a resident assistant, and when she asks her student residents how they’re doing, she said they frequently reply with “I’m exhausted,” or “I’m tired because of school.” She admits to struggling with maintaining healthy sleep habits herself.

“[My own sleeping habits] are terrible. That’s the main reason why I actually did the study. I know for a fact that I stay up until two or three o’clock in the morning, like everyone else. Just because of schoolwork, or I just can’t get to sleep, negative thoughts,” Wagganer said.

Graphic by Kenzie Akins.

This widespread exhaustion extends beyond high school and college campuses, according to Dr. Mark Muehlbach, clinical director of the Clayton Sleep Institute and “Sleep Psychology” instructor at Webster. Sleep deprivation is a main contributor to daytime fatigue, but Dr. Muehlbach said many people don’t see this connection. 

“If we don’t get an adequate amount of sleep, we get sleepy. Some people feel sleep is more of a luxury than a necessity. But sleep is a necessity, just as food and water are necessities.  Many people limit their sleep because they feel they can get more done the more wake time they have,” Dr. Muehlbach said.

Students are not the only ones who stay up too late, and Dr. Malhotra said they aren’t the only ones to blame. In fact, the pressure for students to undersleep actually begins in high school, when students’ schedules are overpacked with classes and extracurriculars. Dr. Malhotra said adults blame students for problems that result from this pressure.

“[Sleep deprivation] can also affect mood, actually. Not getting a good night’s sleep can cause anxiety or depression; you can [have] poor decision-making,” Dr. Malhotra said. “Those are all things that we sometimes blame our high school, or maybe even college students for. And maybe part of it is because we’re just sleep-depriving them.”

Solutions to sleep deprivation primarily revolve around maintaining a consistent sleep schedule throughout the week and winding down before going to bed. Dr. Malhotra explained that other quick solutions, such as caffeine and daytime naps, don’t yield the same long-term results as getting good, consistent sleep.

“[Energy drinks and power naps] are just temporary fixes,” Dr. Malhotra said. “There’s really nothing as good as a good night’s sleep, unfortunately. It’s like everything in life: there’s no quick fixes.”

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Molly Foust (she/her) is the Editor-in-Chief for The Journal. She was previously the News & Lifestyle editor in 2022. She is a junior Journalism major at Webster University, but in fall 2023, she will be transferring to the University of Hartford to major in Digital Media and Journalism with an emphasis in Media Studies. She has been writing for The Journal since her freshman year, and she graduated from Seckman High School in 2021. She is also a Writing Coach at the Reeg Academic Resource Center. She loves animals and has two cats named Cisco and Hellboy (and a rat named George), which fuel her passion for environmental journalism. She enjoys studying biology, psychology and feminist literature, and her favorite things to do are listen to music (especially Amy Winehouse), and spend time with her friends at The Journal!