10/19/2012 06:24 pm ET Updated Dec 19, 2012

Sleeping Through College

There is little that is more humbling to a college professor than seeing someone yawn or even doze off during class. I've seen this happen during lively class discussions, videos, games and while using other classroom technology.

Sometimes I've asked the student individually what was going on, and sometimes I have gotten reasonable answers. One student told me he worked as a paramedic during the night shift to pay for school. Another said she was adjusting to a new medication that made her drowsy.

A few times, repeat dozers who were failing the class came to see me to ask what they could do to improve their grade. With a straight face, I tell them that consciousness may help them grasp the material better.

Most students don't literally sleep in class, but I suspect many people figuratively sleep through college.

It's easy to do, actually. Students become experts at how to get the best grades possible, and the most painless way to meet the requirements for a degree. Many people find themselves going through the motions without ever thinking, "Why am I really here?"

This is not entirely students' fault; those who excel in high school are often people who learn to "do school" and navigate a bureaucracy. This is a skill in itself, but one we are seldom conscious of developing.

Here are some clues that you may be sleeping though college:

  • You sign up for most of your classes because you have heard they are easy
  • You choose classes because your friends are taking them
  • You selected your major because it sounds easy or because it is what someone else wants you to major in
  • You haven't really enjoyed any of your classes
  • You'd like to change your major, but think it would be too hard at this point or you don't know if your parents would approve
  • You have no idea what you would like to do after college and you have never given it much thought
  • The effort you put into your social life far outweighs the effort you put into your coursework

If any of these experiences sound familiar, you are probably not alone. In fact, I suspect most student can relate to at least one or two of these if they really thought about it.

The good news is it's never too late to wake up and begin to think critically about your intentions and actions. If you are still a student (or better yet if you are just about to start college), it's a good idea to ask yourself what you want to get out of the experience.

If it's a good paying job in a satisfying field, that means figuring out what skills you need to get there, and what you personally will find satisfying. (You might even want to find out what the average starting salary might be to make sure you can afford to pay back any loans you might need.) Here are some of the tools you can develop in college along the way:

  • Planning for and meeting multiple deadlines and other time management challenges
  • Working in teams with people with diverse backgrounds, abilities, and levels of commitment
  • Taking responsibility for your actions and outcomes
  • Taking courses in a variety of disciplines to assess your personal interests
  • Doing internships (whether paid or for credit) to learn about what it's really like to work in a field

Last spring, 60 Minutes aired a story that questioned whether college is worth the cost. Featuring a billionaire who paid bright, promising students $100,000 to drop out and develop their ideas for new businesses, the piece examined whether tech titans like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates -- both Harvard dropouts -- needed anything a college education had to offer.

Of course most of us are not the next founders of Facebook or Microsoft, as the story pointed out. Is college important for the average person?

The answer is maybe.

On the one hand, the unemployment rate is lower than the national average for those who have completed at least an associate's degree. Completing a bachelor's degree means higher weekly earnings on average too. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, finishing college provides more economic stability than not.

For those who attended college but did not finish their degree, their unemployment rate is higher than the national average and their earnings are lower. While these numbers are slightly better than those with only a high school diploma, it is possible that they accumulated student loan debt in the process.

According to the College Board, the median debt load for all graduates was $11,000 (this number includes those who did not take out loans; the median debt for those that borrowed was $20,000); for those that attended for-profit schools, the median debt was $31,190.

If someone ends up with a significant amount of debt and a degree that won't help them find a job -- or a degree in a field they really never had any interest in to begin with -- that creates not just a problem for them but has a ripple effect throughout the economy. The nation's total student loan debt now exceeds auto loan and credit card debt.

As a USA Today story details, the high levels of debt that many people carry mean that they can't afford to buy other goods and services, which some analysts think is contributing to the slow recovery of the economy. Business Week explored the challenge of students who had not finished their degrees but had massive student loan debt -- sometimes so much that ironically they couldn't afford to finish their degree.

College can be a great experience, providing not just career credentials but a chance to explore your interests and mature individually and intellectually. That is, if you are awake.

This post first appeared on the Everyday Sociology Blog.