Here’s an important lesson for college students: You can sleep your way to better grades.

Sleep deprivation can have a pronounced impact on academic success. An all-nighter may help if all you have to do is memorize a list, but if you need to do something complex with the information, you will do worse by staying up all night, said J. Roxanne Prichard, an expert on college sleep issues and a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

After being awake 16 hours in a row, brain function starts to decline, and after 20 hours awake, you perform as if legally drunk, she said.

Many college-bound kids start out with dreadful sleep habits that are likely to get worse once the rigorous demands of college courses and social life kick in. Students often sleep until 11 a.m. or later on weekends, but that just throws their circadian clocks out of whack in a perpetual struggle to make up for a serious midweek sleep debt. It is as if they travel across three or more time zones every weekend, then spend Monday through Friday recovering from performance-robbing jet lag.

Students who fail to adopt more wholesome sleep habits are more likely to find themselves unable to handle their chosen course load and less likely to reach their academic potential, according to a national study of more than 55,000 college students.

The study, by Prichard and Monica E. Hartmann, an economics professor at St. Thomas, found that for each additional day of sleep disturbance a college student experienced each week, the likelihood of dropping a course rose by 10 percent and GPA fell by 0.02.

“One in every three or four students nationally fails to graduate,” Prichard said. “If their sleep were improved, their likelihood of graduating would too. Nothing gets worse with better sleep and a lot of things get better.”

Still, few students — or their parents — grasp the seriousness of missing sleep.

“If all you do is ask students how they’re sleeping, chances are they’ll say ‘great’ because they’re so chronically sleep-deprived, they can fall asleep anywhere,” she said.