Pushing school start times to 8:30 a.m. could add billions to the US economy

  • A study from the RAND Corporation and RAND Europe found delayed start times could add $US83 billion to the US economy by 2027.
  • The increases would come from improved high school graduation rates leading to better jobs and fewer costs associated with sleep-related car crashes, obesity, and mental illness.
  • Schools may need to make short-term investments, but the long-term upsides could be worth it.

A new study has discovered a simple way to add billions of dollars to the US economy: delay school start times.

According to a new study published by the RAND Corporation and RAND Europe, moving the first bell to 8:30 a.m. across America’s middle and high schools could add some $US9.3 billion to the economy within the next year and $US83 billion over the next decade.

“Everybody’s always talking about the costs,” Marco Hafner, lead author of the study and research leader at the RAND Corporation, told Business Insider, pointing to the costs of changing bus routes and the hassle of shifting school activities. “But no one’s really talking about the benefits.”

Schools have been slow to adapt to the wisdom of the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which have said that, for health reasons, pre-teens and teenagers shouldn’t start school any earlier than 8:30 a.m.

“The research is clear that adolescents who get enough sleep have a reduced risk of being overweight or suffering depression, are less likely to be involved in automobile accidents, and have better grades, higher standardised test scores, and an overall better quality of life,” pediatrician Judith Owens, lead author of a 2014 AAP policy report, said in a statement.

Some states — as well as individual districts and schools — have taken steps to follow those recommendations; however, many more have said the move isn’t feasible from a scheduling standpoint. In certain cases, Hafner said, schools have needed to push their athletics back to compensate for lost time. Others are forced to invest in more buses, since the single fleet that used to get kids at different times now must get them all at once.

Roughly 93% of high schools and 83% of middle schools in the US start before 8:30 a.m., according to a 2014 report from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

For the latest study, researchers relied on CDC data comprising school start times from 47 states. They used that data to build an economic model on the effects that car crashes and high school graduation rates have on economic gain in a given state.

Results showed marked increases in students’ long-term output once they entered the working world. Over a 15-year period, the data indicated an additional $US140 billion should be added to the US economy.

Hafner said he had no expectations going into the study, and he conceded that $US140 billion is small relative to the US gross domestic product of $US18.57 trillion. But he also added that $US9.3 billion a year is nothing to sneeze at — it’s roughly the annual revenue of Major League Baseball.

Plus, their estimates err on the conservative side, he said.

According to Hafner, the team’s model doesn’t account for other consequences of early start times, such as increased obesity rates, which have an annual cost of roughly $US45 billion. And research has suggested that teens who haven’t slept enough are more likely to commit violent crime and damage property, both of which carry annual costs in the billions, the authors say. Decreases in mental illness are likely to bring costs down, too.

“People mainly talk about the cost implications,” Hafner said. “But I think this could be a good contribution to the whole kind of feedback about it. It’s not only about public health, it’s not only about cost — it’s actually good for the economy.”

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