A Day in the Life of a College Student

It is of course cliche to point out that the average college student leads a busy life, having to balance academics, extra-curricular activities, personal commitments, and perhaps even a full-time job and family.

But factor in the burden of student debt and the difficulties of finding a good job in today’s post-recession job market and surely this should be enough to convince almost anyone that the current generation of college students is under considerable stress.

Importantly though, the challenges facing many of today’s students go far beyond mere stress. In fact, based on findings from some recent reports and surveys, American colleges and universities might well be facing a serious mental health crisis among their student bodies.

Take the following findings, for example:

According to the 2012 survey by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors:

  • 95% of college counseling center directors report that the number of students with significant psychological problems is a growing concern in their center or on campus.
  • Anxiety is the top presenting concern among college students (41.6%), followed by depression (36.4%) and relationship problems (35.8%).
  • Directors report that 21% of counseling center students present with severe mental health concerns, while another 40% present with mild mental health concerns.
  • 70% of directors believe that the number of students with severe psychological problems on their campus has increased in the past year.

According to the 2012 National College Health Assessment, by the American College Health Association:

  • More than 40% of college students have felt more than an average amount of stress within the past 12 months.
  • More than 80% of college students felt overwhelmed by all they had to do in the past year and 45% have felt things were hopeless.

Finally, findings from the 2012 American Freshman National Norms survey suggest that the emotional health and well-being of college freshmen has been on a downward trend for the past several decades.

As this study reports, 30.4% of incoming first-year students indicate feeling frequently overwhelmed with all they had to do during their senior year in high school. This number is at an all time high and is generally increasing, as shown in the figure below.

College students overwhelmed
Figure 8 from Pryor, Eagan, Palucki Blake, Hurtado, Berdan, & Case (2012). The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2012. Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA

And as reported by the New York Times, an earlier version of The American Freshman National Norms survey found evidence of a substantial decrease in the percentage of students who say their emotional health is above average – down from 64% in 1985 to 52% in 2010.

Although it’s obvious that no single factor is responsible for college students’ declining emotional well-being, the findings highlighted above led me to wonder what an average day looks like for a typical American college student.

Is the current mental health crisis on American college campuses, in part, a reflection of a wildly hectic lifestyle centered around work and academic achievement?

Does the current generation of college students devote too much time to work and education and not enough time to relaxation and leisure activities, which might serve as a buffer against stress, anxiety, and depression?

And how do the daily activities of college students compare to those of other groups, such as high school students and people not enrolled as a student at any type of school, college, or university?

To try to answer these questions, I compiled data from the American Time Use Survey, which is conducted each year by the U.S. Department of Labor to measure the amount of time people spend doing various activities, such as paid work, research and homework for school, childcare, volunteering, and socializing.

Figure 1 below shows how students and non-students spent a typical weekday each year from 2003 to 2013.

Note that you must use the filters located in the top-right corner of the graphic to toggle between groups (Non-Students vs. Full-Time High School Students vs. Full-Time College Students) and between years.

Figure 1: How Non-Students, Full-Time High School Students, & Full-Time College Students Spend a Typical Weekday (2003-2013).

*Note that the graphics above reflect percentages for the broadest level of activity categories in the American Time Use Survey. Click here for a list of the specific activities that comprise these broader categories.

Below are a few highlights before we proceed further.

At any given time during a weekday in 2013:

  • 37.24% of Full-Time College students were engaged in Personal Care Activities (e.g., sleeping, washing, dressing, and grooming, private activities, etc.), compared to 40.36% of High School Students and 37.11% of Non-Students.
  • 12.94% of Full-Time College Students were engaged in Leisure Activities, compared to 13.26% of High School Students and 15.47% of Non-Students.
  • 12.07% of Full-Time College Students were Traveling, compared to 9.66% of High School Students and 9.98% of Non-Students.
  • 8.53% of Full-Time College Students were working on Education-Related Activities, compared to 19.17% of High School Students and only 0.08% of Non-Students.
  • 6.75% of Full-Time College Students were engaged in Work-Related Activities, compared to 1.38% of High School Students and 11.67% of Non-Students.

So how does the average day of a college student compare to that of a high school student or non-student?

The table below shows the average percentage of students and non-students engaged in each activity during a typical weekday (regardless of time of day and year).

Compared to Non-Students, a higher percentage of college students devote time during a typical weekday to: (1) Education; (2) Travel; (3) Personal Care Activities; (4) Sports, Exercise, & Recreation; (5) Consumer Purchases; and (6) Government Services & Civic Obligations.

Meanwhile, fewer college students devote time during a typical weekday to: (1) Telephone Calls; (2) Household Services; (3) Caring For & Helping Non-Household Members; (4) Religious & Spiritual Activities; (5) Professional & Personal Care Services; (6) Volunteer Activities; (7) Eating & Drinking; (8) Caring For & Helping Household Members; (9) Socializing, Relaxing, & Leisure; (10) Household Activities; and (11) Work & Work-Related Activities.

Given that many of the activities can be easily divided into those that constitute work-related chores and responsibilities vs. those that comprise personal and self-enrichment-type activities, I attempted to sort each activity according to whether a person likely feels it is something they Have to do (e.g., Education, Work-Related Activities, and Caring For Household Members) vs. whether it is something they Want to do (e.g., Personal Care Activities, Sports, Exercise, & Recreation, and Socializing, Relaxing, & Leisure).

Keep in mind, however, that this process is somewhat subjective and that some activities defy easy categorization. For example, I categorized “Travel” as an activity that people likely feel they Have to do because the only types of travel included in the Time Use Survey are those that relate to (and are therefore seemingly necessary to take part in) other activities (e.g., “travel related to taking class” and “travel related to working”). However, surely not everyone regards such forms of travel as a burden on their time.

Furthermore, such a simple categorization of activities doesn’t allow for the possibility that what you have to do and what you want to do are one and the same. Obviously, parents have to care for and help their children, and hopefully most want to do this as well.

Table 1: Average Percentage of Full-Time College Students, Non-Students, & Full-Time High School Students Engaged in each Activity, Regardless of Time of Day and Year.

daily activity group comparisons
(Click image to open in a new window and enlarge)

Setting aside the limitations of this approach, however, we can see that full-time college students generally have a lifestyle that is more “balanced” between the things they have to do and the things they want to do (note that in this context, I’m assuming that it’s preferable to have a “less balanced” lifestyle – specifically one where a greater number of people spend time doing things they want to do rather than things they feel they have to do).

Although, in general, more people devote time to things they want to do than to things they might feel they have to do, the percentage of people spending time on things they have to do is higher among college students (39.96%) than among non-students (36.93%) and high school students (34.55%).

Meanwhile, the percentage of people spending time on things they want to do is lower among college students (57.67%) than among non-students (60.85%) and high school students (63.17%).*

Although these differences do not appear vast, keep in mind that in this analysis we are only focusing on average members of each population. One wonders what the balance between work and personal time is for those students who are most at risk for developing anxiety and depression during their time in college.

In my next post, I’ll continue to explore the daily activities of American college students and dig more deeply into how an average day for students has changed over the course of the last decade.


*Note: The same pattern is observed when adopting a more conservative approach to categorizing activities (i.e., including only Education, Work & Work-Related Activities, and Household Activities among the activities a person likely feels they have to do and including only Personal Care Activities, Sports, Exercise, & Recreation, and Socializing, Relaxation, & Leisure among the activities a person likely wants to do.)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *