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The Last Argument Against a Later School Day Has Collapsed

Letting students sleep more could save as much as $83 billion within the first 10 years.

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Sleep researchers have long argued that early school start times lead to tired, underperforming students. Kids are biologically different from adults, with different sleep-wake cycles that don't conform to the standard adult workday. Recognizing that, and letting them get more rest, increases their academic performance, improves their mental health, and makes them less likely to be obese. It would even cut down on car accidents.


One counter-argument has been that it'd be too expensive to retool the country's myriad school systems to start later. A new study from the RAND Corporation, though, undercuts that idea—in fact, it suggests that the benefits of later start far outweigh the costs. If the United States were to shift to start times no earlier than 8:30 AM, within two years, the move would add $8.6 billion to the US economy; within a decade the economic gains could reach $83 billion. After 15 years, the gain would be $140 billion, with an average gain of about $9.3 billion each year.

Those are heady numbers, and the study used a unique approach to reach them. According to RAND, a Brooking Institute study was the only previous attempt to put on a number on delayed start times. It found a $17,500 lifetime earnings gain for students, against a cost of $1,950 over a student's school career. RAND wanted to create a more granular picture, and so created a baseline economic model across 47 U.S. states based on their start times for middle and high schools (with data provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

Researchers then modeled a "what-if" scenario with all school days starting at 8:30 AM. For some states, that was a minor change—a 30-minute delay—but RAND wanted to account for regional differences in start times. That helped create a fuller picture of the potential benefits. So, too, did breaking down the economic impact over time, rather than simply attaching a single number to every student.


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RAND included beneficial factors such as increased academic and job performance, as well as, yes, the predicted impact of fewer car crashes among adolescents. (People who don't die in accidents contribute more to the economy; that's another grim quantification courtesy of the dismal science.) Costs included bus rescheduling (among the largest expenses), shifting after-school activities, and changing school infrastructure for later days—adding more lighting, for example.

Still, by RAND's self-described conservative estimates, a later start to the school day is not just a bargain, but a boon. And that's simply from an economic perspective: It necessarily leaves out the harder-to-quantify benefits such as improved mental health and less obesity among students. On a cost-benefit analysis—by RAND's numbers, anyway—the question of when to start the school day has an obvious answer.

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