Health, Behavior and College GPA

Your mother always told you that doing drugs and watching too much TV would hurt your grades. A new study proves it.
October 21, 2008

The list of traits and behaviors that college officials believe are bad for their students is long, and the list of successful counter-tactics is short. Drinking is bad for me? My parents drink; why shouldn't I? I spend too much time on the computer? It's where I find out what I need to know and keep up with friends. I don't get enough rest? I'm young; I'll sleep when I'm dead.

Ed Ehlinger, director of the University of Minnesota's Boynton Health Service, said that while he and other health officials have long argued that such activities hurt students academically, there has been little or no "documentation that it actually was true."

So Ehlinger and colleagues at other colleges and universities in Minnesota this year expanded their longstanding College Student Health Survey to, for the first time, try to document that "the stuff that our parents have told us all along" is true. In addition to collecting the usual information about the frequency and intensity of various student behaviors and traits, the researchers also gathered data about students' perceptions of the impact on their academic performance and about their actual grade point averages.

The ensuing report, which includes data on nearly 10,000 undergraduate students at two-year and four-year colleges in Minnesota, both backs up some long-contended assertions on the part of college health officials and also suggests some areas of concern that caught the researchers by surprise.

In the former category, it's unlikely to stun anyone that students who reported both that they use alcohol or drugs and that they believe that behavior affected their academic performance had far lower GPAs than did students who said they did not have an "issue" with alcohol or drugs (2.92 vs. 3.28 for alcohol and 2.94 vs. 3.25 for drugs). But Ehlinger said that it was heartening to him that the study's data back up the conventional wisdom that that "there's a linear relationship -- as high-risk drinking goes up, grade point average goes down (from an average GPA of about 3.30 for students who had not engaged in binge drinking in the preceding two weeks to about 3.10 to 3.15 for those who had done so twice or more in the previous two weeks).

More surprising, Ehlinger said, were findings about the strong associations (though not necessarily causation) between lower GPAs and tobacco use and lack of health insurance.

Students who reported smoking or using smokeless tobacco in the previous 30 days had significantly lower mean GPAs than did other students, a result he attributed not to tobacco use itself but because "tobacco use is an indicator for other behaviors," including alcohol, stress and credit card debt. In addition, the 9.3 percent of respondents who said they did not have health insurance had a lower average GPA than did their peers (3.17 vs. 3.25), which Ehlinger said was "probably linked to stress and to not having access to preventive health services."

Among the survey's other findings:

  • Stress was the most commonly reported health and personal issue that seemed to have a negative association with academic performance. Seven in 10 students reported having an "issue" with stress, and about a third said they believed it affected their academic performance. But feeling stress didn't necessarily hurt academic performance; the study found "no documented relationship between students' reported stress level and their mean grade point averages," suggesting that many students "felt stressed but felt like they could handle the stress," said Ehlinger. But students who truly experienced stress -- as measured by exposure to established stressors such as getting married, failing a class, facing excessive credit card debt, or seeing a close friend or relative die or fall seriously ill -- did have lesser academic performance, in line with the number of such stressors they experienced. "Those things do pile up, and each of them adds" to the effect, Ehlinger said.
  • Grade point averages fell as hours that students spent watching television or on the computer for purposes other than work or study grew. The 25 percent of undergraduates who reported watching television two hours a day had an average GPA of 3.21, as did the 18 percent who said they spent two hours a day in front of the computer screen for non-school or work purposes. The roughly 10 percent of students who spent four or more hours in one of those activities had GPAs of about 3.00. Those who reported spending less than an hour a day in those activities had GPAs of about 3.3.
  • GPA also increased with the number of days of adequate sleep a student had in the previous seven days. Data on that and many of the other behaviors appears in the table below.

Ehlinger said the study had several purposes, including persuading campus administrators to pay attention to the health of their students ("Give them access to insurance and health care," "have an environment that helps reduce stress," etc.), prodding faculty members to "care not just about the brain" but about the "brain inside the body" of their students, and to students themselves. "The message is that there are simple things -- not necessarily easy things, but simple things -- that you could do to positively impact your GPA, like turning off the computer and getting to bed," Ehlinger said.

"We all know these things," he added, "but when you see them linked directly to GPA, it may be just the impetus to push them toward a change in behavior."

Health and Personal Issues and Grade Point Average, Minnesota Undergraduate Students

Behavior or Activity % Reporting the Issue % Saying the Issue Affected Academics Mean GPA for Students Who Say Issue Affected Academics Mean GPA for Students Who Did Not Report the Issue  
Stress 69.9% 32.9% 3.12 3.23  
Sleep Difficulties 40.8 20.0 3.08 3.27  
Concern for Troubled Friend/Family Member 42.4 15.8 3.08 3.25  
Relationship Issues 34.8 14.1 3.10 3.25  
Excessive Computer/Internet Use 30.4 13.0 3.04 3.27  
Financial Difficulties 44.0 12.8 3.03 3.28  
Mental Health Issues 21.5 12.3 3.08 3.25  
Upper Respiratory Infection 36.5 11.5 3.12 3.23  
Alcohol Use 32.8 7.5 2.92 3.28  
Learning Disability/ADD 7.2 4.3 2.93 3.26  
Moved/Changed Residence 21.5 3.8 3.05 3.24  
Drug Use 6.5 2.2 2.94 3.25  
Serious Injury 4.6 2.0 3.01 3.25  
Allergies 29.7 1.8 3.04 3.24  
Chronic Conditions 10.3 1.8 3.17 3.24  
Mono 3.1 1.6 3.19 3.24  
Eating Disorder 4.6 1.2 3.13 3.24  

Source: College Student Health Survey


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