Delaying school start times: You snooze, you…win?

As we’ve come to learn more about sleep and how it affects adolescents, school start times (SST) have become part of a national conversation. Several studies published in prestigious outlets such as the American Economic Journal and Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine indicate that later SST could be beneficial for students, as insufficient sleep is associated with poor academic performance, increased automobile crash mortality, obesity, and depression. And as more benefits of sleep have come to light, several medical organizations, such as the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, have recommended that middle and high schools shouldn’t start until 8:30 a.m. However, understandable concerns about pushing back SST remain, largely regarding increased transportation costs and whether the shift might negatively affect after-school extracurricular activities and employment opportunities.  

Enter RAND Europe and the RAND Corporation, which conducted a recent study in which they aim to gauge whether the benefits of later SST are worth the costs. Throughout the process, they sought to address two questions: If there were universal shifts in SST to 8:30 a.m.—versus the U.S. average start time of 8:03 a.m.—what would the economic impact be? And would that shift be a cost-effective policy measure?

Based on prior studies, the researchers focused principally on the notion that students would reap academic benefits given the opportunity to gain additional sleep in the morning; this includes increased high school graduation and college-matriculation rates that in turn should generate economic gains. They also assumed benefits in decreased mortality based on fewer automobile accidents tied to sleep deprivation. On the cost side of the ledger, the RAND analysts considered increased transportation expenses to accommodate the later SST and infrastructure costs associated with pushing back extracurricular start times (e.g., installing lights for athletic fields).  

Based on their cost-benefit calculations, the RAND analysts predicted that universally delaying school start times to 8:30 a.m. would be a cost-effective policy. On a national scale, they estimated that after as little as two years, there could be a significant return on investment—an economic gain of about $8.6 billion to the U.S. economy. After ten years, the researchers predicted that the later SST policy would contribute a cumulative $83 billion to the economy. In per-student terms, the analysts predicted a $346 benefit two years after the policy change and $3,309 after ten years. State-by-state estimates were also provided, with RAND forecasting in Ohio a $410 and $3,510 benefit per student after two and ten years, respectively. These net benefits assumed what the RAND analysts consider “normal” costs associated with the policy shift (a $150 per student bump in transportation costs and upfront infrastructure costs of $110,000 per school). However, under higher cost assumptions, RAND analysts estimated diminished returns that don’t actually turn positive for quite some time. For instance, in the higher cost simulations, the payoff of later SST in many states doesn’t turn positive until ten years after the policy change.  

This study suggests that it’s worth it to modestly delay start times. Of course, their findings hinge on assumptions about the aggravation and costs associated with changing school schedules. But in practice, schools across the country and here in Ohio (traditional public and charter alike) are indeed making this shift, likely in the hopes of increasing the odds of students arriving to school safely and improving their readiness to learn from the moment they step through their school’s doors. These schools seem to recognize that the old phrase, “you snooze, you lose” might not be correct after all. We shall see.

SOURCE: Marco Hafner, Martin Stepanek, Wendy M. Troxel, “Later school start times in the U.S.: An economic analysis,” RAND Europe (2017).

Madison Yoder
Madison Yoder the communications and policy associate for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute