GPA detriments: drinking, drugs and Facebook?

By Aaron Geiger

It’s common sense to think that the more you drink the worse your grades are going to get. If you do drugs, conventional wisdom says your GPA is going to tank.

But what about Facebook and Skype? Are they just as detrimental? What if you smoke? Is your GPA affected by your parents and their behaviors?

Ed Ehlinger, director of the University of Minnesota’s Boynton Health Service, in conjunction with colleagues from other colleges and universities, expanded their College Student Health Survey to include certain behaviors that students exhibit that were long suspected to have an overall impact on their grades.

The report surveyed close to 10,000 undergraduates in two- and four-year colleges and universities. The study was meant to reinforce mainstream beliefs by providing data, but some new surprises surfaced, such as the relationships between lower GPAs and tobacco use and the lack of health insurance.

Some of the topics that were studied in the report were: alcohol use, drug use, stress, sleep difficulties, excessive computer/Internet use, financial difficulties and eating disorders.

Ellen Fireman, statistics professor at the University, agrees that she hasn’t seen much documentation linking student behaviors to grades. As a statistician, she had some assessments of the survey.

“One of the interesting questions raised…concerns how the pattern of causation works,” Fireman said. “Do some of the heavy-drinking students do poorly because they drink heavily? Are some of them undisciplined people who would have trouble in school even if they could stop drinking? These are the sorts of questions that are very hard to answer without controlled experiments. However, controlled experiments are quite difficult and are subject to lots of regulation.”

Students at the University are quick to point out that they believe their habits and choices affect their grades. And in many cases, binge drinking or drugs doesn’t factor in the equation.

“I talk on AIM and Skype,” said Eric Fleming, freshman in General Studies. “So, last night I’m trying to work and a friend pops up, and he has a major issue to talk about, and we spent a lot of time (talking about the issue). I felt obligated to help, but it ended up being about three hours. I went to bed at 4 a.m. When you have a loss of sleep like that, you could say it would definitely affect your GPA.”

Social networking, both online and off, have a significant impact on study habits and time management. Keeping up with networks like Facebook and MySpace, while also going out to the bars or athletic fields for some recreation, can put a large strain on prioritization.

“In college, you can choose two or three things: sleeping, studying and fun,” said Charlie Ma, freshman in Engineering. “The most important thing is managing your time. You really need sleep to function. Have fun at times, and using that time, go off of it and do some studying. Partying too much, drinking and socializing have hurt my GPA. My first few weeks my test scores weren’t that great, but I’ve been studying more and it has paid off.”

But according to Fireman, this type of student thinking might create a problem with the study by Ehlinger.

“Another issue with polls of this sort is that people who have problems, say poor GPA, sometimes remember potential causes, like drinking, more vividly than people who are doing well. This problem often gives false-positive correlation when people with illnesses are asked about possible contributing factors,” Fireman said.

Illnesses can be both mental and physical, too. Ruth McCauley, associate dean of Students, sees a lot of student emergencies that originate from psychological disorders.

According to McCauley, many students that come to the University already experience depression, panic disorder and bipolar disorders.

McCauley has also seen a disturbing trend in the past few years, including binge-drinking in order to “blackout” on purpose. And the trend doesn’t just start at the University.

“I think we’re seeing a lot more students arriving at school that already are facing addiction issues,” McCauley said. “Those issues can be exacerbated by having newfound freedoms here – there’s simply no one around them being watchful.”

Jen Hanson, senior in Media, thinks that extenuating factors also reach from home in different forms, such as parents.

“My cousin goes to Bradley and his parents pay for his tuition,” Hanson said. “They constantly held a standard of a certain GPA and if that threshold wasn’t met, his tuition check was threatened to be pulled. I noticed that he works extra hard to maintain his grades.”

McCauley reminds students of the many resources that they can turn to when they need assistance. The University assists students in areas including time management, drug and alcohol abuse, and even prioritization.

Fireman has a different take on the issues raised by the study.

“My feeling from the large lectures I teach is that boredom and intellectual passivity far outweigh lifestyle issues as the main enemies to learning,” she said.