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An opinion piece in the University of Houston student newspaper is provocatively titled “Self Sabotage: Why do students spread themselves so thin?”

Swamped, exhausted, overwhelmed – these are words one hears repeatedly from students, whether they are traditional aged or older. Overscheduled and overcommitted: This describes most students today, not just college athletes.

The question – why are college students so sleep deprived and overextended? – is well worth asking.

For all the complaints about students as slackers, who are disengaged from academics and spend too much time socializing, partying, and playing videogames, the demands on their time are great, as students struggle to juggle schoolwork, paid work, extracurriculars, sports, community service, and family and other responsibilities.  

Overcommitment, in turn, places great strains on students’ mental health and physical well-being. Anxiety, depression, stress and fatigue are symptoms of overcommitment, and many students try to cope and to release stress in the same ways as older adults, through alcohol or drugs and mindless distractions.

To be sure, college students have longed burned the candle at both ends. All-nighters and all-hours bull sessions are nothing new.  Nor is a college culture centered around extracurriculars and fraternities and sororities. A 2002 Harvard report expressed concern that those students were overextended.

Some scholars, like Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, indict particular majors for allowing fun to outweigh rigorous academics.  But the real problem is at once deeper and broader. Being overextended is now regarded as cool. Too many students have embraced, or feel forced to embrace, a culture of busyness.

Certainly some students have no choice but to be busy: They are under intense pressure to earn money and to meet various family responsibilities. Others, especially at the highly selective schools, choose to be overextended.

What are the roots of the campus culture of overcommitment?

For many students, overextension begins in high school, with its emphasis on club and organizations, athletics, and, increasingly, paid work. At some of the most selective campuses, peer pressure certainly contributes to overcommitment, as many can’t say know to various demands on their time.

Given higher education’s costs, many students embrace work as the way to help pay for their educational expenses and incidentals. And many students find extracurriculars the most meaningful and enjoyable aspects of the college experience.

How should colleges respond?

First, administrators and faculty need recognize the problem. A problem that isn’t recognized is a problem that will go unaddressed.

Second, address the problem head-on. To the extent possible, substitute on-campus jobs for off-campus employment. Make co-curricular and extracurricular activities more integral parts of degree pathways.

Adopt course designs that discourage cramming. Eliminate high stakes tests that encourage students to vacillate between cramming and blowing off steam. Instead, encourage more frequent lower-stakes assessments and projects that culminate over time.

The symptoms of overcommitment are all around us, if we care to look. Students who are overextended cannot devote the time or mental energy to the tasks we deem most essential.

Steven Mintz, who directed the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning from 2012 to 2017, is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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