How College Students Spend Their Time

A recent report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics presents findings from the American Time Use Survey. This federal survey includes data from individuals, age 15 to 49, who are enrolled full-time in an accredited college or university in the United States and elicits information about how college students spend their time. One major conclusion from the survey is that on an average weekday, college students spend 3.3 hours engaged in educational activities—that’s just 3.3 hours a day out of the 24 available to them.

Here’s a summary of the survey’s results which are based on non-holiday weekdays and averages for 2009 to 2013:


So what does it mean and how does it relate to student success, which is the mission and primary aim of the Center for Higher Education Enterprise (CHEE) at The Ohio State University? Several points deserve mention:

1. Students, on average, spend only 3.3 hours per day on “educational activities,” despite a general rule that students should devote 2 hours of study time for every 1 hour of class time—the widely circulated “2:1 rule.” College student educators should encourage students to increase the amount of time spent on educational activities and provide advice about how to maximize study time. Sharing the 2:1 rule may help students set goals for themselves.

2. Students, on average, spend 2.5 hours per day on “working and related activities,” which is less than an hour shy of the time devoted to educational activities. That students spend just as much time working as they do studying is important to note; time devoted to working may be even greater for low-income students, Pell grant recipients, and those with dependents. College student educators should consider this information when working with all students, especially underrepresented students. Providing tools that help students juggle multiple responsibilities, manage time well, prioritize competing commitments, and keep academics first while performing well in the workplace holds promise for increasing student success.


Data from a U.S. Census Bureau report suggest that approximately 71% of undergraduates in the nation work and “one in 5” work at least 35 hours per week year-round. Students, like everyone else, have 24 hours available to them each day; time spent working, by default, is time taken from other activities like reading, studying, and seeking help for academics. College student educators would do well to help students evaluate commitments, set realistic goals, and adopt effective time management strategies. Using a calendar, prioritizing short- and long-term goals, multitasking, creating to-do lists, and seeking support from campus offices are proven to increase student success. This figure presents the percentage of college students who work full-time, year-round by state:


3. Students, on average, spend 4.0 hours per day on “leisure and sports” and 8.6 hours per day “sleeping.” Time spent engaging in leisure and sports activities is important for students’ overall health and well-being; so too is sleep. Faculty and staff should remember this when working with students. Leisure and sports are not time wasted but critical to student success. Still, time allocated to such activities must be reasonable given the academic demands of college.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults get 7 to 9 hours of sleep per day, while both the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend 7 to 8 hours a day. Sleep is vital to student success too and national data suggest that students, on average, meet or exceed recommended hours. Any extra time that students take from sleeping should be redirected to engagement in educationally purposeful activities like class attendance, studying, attending faculty office hours, or completing class assignments.

I’ve learned about college students’ time use from other surveys that I have conducted over the last decade or so. For instance, a few years ago while at my former institution, I engaged my research team in a longitudinal survey of entering first-year students at large, public research universities. With over 700 complete responses, I authored a peer-reviewed journal article about the influence of first-year seminars on student success (Strayhorn, 2009). You can access the article in the Journal of the First-Year Experience, Volume 21, Number 1.

One section of the first-year survey elicited information about how students use their time. For instance, one set of items asked students to rate the amount of time (i.e., hours) they spend each week on various activities including: studying or doing homework, talking with instructors outside of class, playing on computer, using social media sites, watching television, or working on- or off-campus. Results from this survey regarding social media use were published in the Journal of College Student Development, Volume 53, Number 6.Here’s a summary of results from the larger survey that go beyond what’s presented in the article:


These findings generally reflect results from the federal studies—time matters and students devote varying amounts of time to academic, social, and civic activities. The table above demonstrates that similar trends hold true for college freshmen. It’s good to know that almost everyone in the sample spent time studying and socializing with their friends, since both are critical to student success; socializing with friends is just one way that many students find a sense of belonging in college. Interestingly, a significant proportion of first-year students from the survey reported working off-campus for 10 or more hours in a typical week, which likely requires time management skills. For those who work with students directly, here’s a short article about learning to manage one’s time in college:

In closing, time is one of our most precious commodities. It’s relatively easy to spend but impossible to get back. Student success requires good use of time and the information contained in this issue of Trending Topics can be used to educate faculty and staff, support students on campus, and ensure success for all students.

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