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The students who get the most out of college wake up and go to class

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Bad news for college students who like to sleep in: your early-bird peers are getting a better education than you are.

College freshmen who are self-described morning people spend more time studying than their peers. They spend less time relaxing and socializing. And they said their classes were more demanding and rigorous.

Study time for morning people vs. night owls

The National Survey of Student Engagement asked 5,420 college students at 57 colleges at the beginning of their freshman year about their sleep habits: if they feel better in the morning and prefer morning activities, if they feel better in the evening and prefer evening activities, or if they don't really care. (This is a real scientific measurement known as the Composite Scale of Morningness.) Then they matched those responses with what the students said at the end of their freshman year about their experiences in college.

Morning people spent more time studying: 52 percent of early birds studied for at least 15 hours a week, compared with 38 percent of night owls. And they spent way less time socializing:

Fun times for morning people vs. night owls

This seemed to pay off. Students who feel their best in the morning were more likely to report that their classes required critical thinking skills, that they were asked to connect what they were learning to real life, and that they had to draw conclusions based on their own analyses. They also had better study habits, both alone and in groups.

Engagement by sleeping habits

Only about 12 percent of students said they were morning people, and 11 percent were night owls. The rest said they had no preference (or maybe feel better at another time of day, like early afternoon).

It's possible that morning people are just better, smarter, more motivated students. Or maybe college is built for them to succeed. Most college classes are still held in the morning, and adolescents — including traditional-aged college freshmen — have circadian rhythms that often slow them down in the morning. Either all college students should get up early, or colleges should wonder why their schedules seem to work best for 12 percent of the population.

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