Wednesday, June 10, 2009

How College Gets Under Your Skin

Cross-posted from Brainstorm, over at the Chronicle of Higher Ed.

I’ve been preoccupied by sleep lately. Not sleeping— though as I approach the end of my first trimester I sure could use some— but sleep itself. What it means to sleep a little or a lot, how it affects your daily interactions with others, etc. This is something I know a tiny bit about, having spent a solid year sleep-deprived after the birth of my first child, but not something I’ve devoted my academic time to.

Until now. I just spent two full days at the Cells to Society (C2S) Summer Biomarker Institute. C2S is also known as the Center on Social Disparities and Health at Northwestern University. It’s directed by developmental psychologist Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, and has additional star power in folks like Thom McDade, Emma Adam, and Chris Kuzawa. These are social science researchers who have mastered the hard sciences as well, and are using medical tools to get at how social practices and environments “get under the skin.”

What does that mean? Well, to explain I’ll tell you why I’m thinking about sleep. It all begins with an attempt to understand the reasons why so many low-income kids drop out of college. A big problem, to be sure— and one that we still don’t know enough about. I’m thinking that has to do with the limited number of ways in which we’ve approached the problem. It’s primarily treated as an educational issue, one we tackle with a combination of college practices and individual-level incentives like money.

But what if, in fact, higher rates of dropout had something to do with poorer mental or physical health? What if the conditions in which low-income kids experience college actually make them less healthy? We all understand stress, and most of us think it’s a regular part of life everyone deals with. But we have differing types and degrees of stress, and in turn differing responses and reactions. Some of us think being stressed out is about trying to fit in an optional French class to our busy schedules, because we’d like to hang out with that cute French boy. Others feel stressed because they do not have enough money to pay for lunch, and are working 2 jobs on top of 4 classes to try and make ends meet.

Looking at sleep patterns, and sleep quality, is one way to try and quantify the effects of college— and policies associated with college-going — on health. I have Emma Adam to thank for getting me to really start think of this as a research topic— one I plan to pursue. When you wake up well-rested your cognitive functioning is improved, and you can go out and learn. When you’ve been in bed for very few hours, or tossed and turned all night, it can be hard to drive to school, let alone master the material in class. At some point, you may just give up.

Lest anyone read this to mean that I think genetic differences underlie social class differences in college attainment— stop right there. Not at all. But there are complex ways in which one’s social environment can alter the biological state, even temporarily, which in turn affects academic achievement. I think it’s about time we start thinking, then, about how college gets under our skin.

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