College Makes You Healthy

At the core of the debate over the value of college is a collage of evidence showing that it produces better lifetime outcomes not just in income but in health and happiness. How does this happen? And how can we be sure that we aren’t just seeing a selection bias — i.e., that people who go to college would have been richer, healthier, and happier in any case?

Here’s a new working paper (abstract; PDF), by Kasey Buckles, Andreas Hagemann, Ofer Malamud, Melinda Morrill, and Abigail Wozniak which purports to show the long-term health effects of a college education. Granted, their data stretches back to the Vietnam War draft (a good instrumental variable, which other researchers have used) but their findings are significant nonetheless.

We exploit exogenous variation in college completion induced by draft-avoidance behavior during the Vietnam War to examine the impact of college completion on adult mortality.  Our preferred estimates imply that increasing college completion rates from the level of the state with the lowest induced rate to the highest would decrease
cumulative mortality by 28 percent relative to the mean.  Most of the reduction in mortality is from deaths due to cancer and heart disease.  We also explore potential mechanisms, including differential earnings, health insurance, and health behaviors, using data from the Census, ACS, and NHIS.

Differential earnings and health insurance are of course related to the income boost that college graduates receive. It is the “health behaviors” that are learned/adopted by college graduates that are especially interesting.

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  1. Golden Eagle says:

    A small quibble over the headline? “College Makes You Healthy”? Difficult to prove any causation. Much easier to see that the segement of the population who does long term planning and reads more will be more likely to adopt healthier lifestyles. Those who choose to drop out of educational process sooner will have a tendency to have more short-term thinking/planning mindset, and read less, thus less likely to adopt (or stick with) healthier choices in life.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      It might even be worse than that: they’re relying on men attending college for the purpose of avoiding dangerous combat duty. This gives them two problems.

      The first is the one that would have been trivially avoided: they studied Baby Boomer “men” but are reporting their results as applying to “adults”.

      The second is that they have no way to differentiate whether a greater-than-average interest in healthful lifestyles is the cause of the college-attending behavior. If I don’t want to die prematurely, I’d be motivated to defer military duty *and* to live the kind of healthful lifestyle that reduces the risk for cancer and heart disease.

      For example, they identify college students’ lower use of tobacco as a major cause of the reduced level of cancer, heart disease, and chronic respiratory disease. Since most people start smoking before college, it’s not “going to college” that extends your life; it’s “refusing tobacco” that extends your life.

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      • James says:

        Sure, refusing tobacco extends life, but I’d argue that going to college makes it more likely that you’ll refuse tobacco.

        WRT avoiding dangerous combat duty as a health factor, it would surely be possible to separate the study population into four groups: did or did not attend college combined with did or did not do military service.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        How can attending college increase the likelihood of refusing tobacco?

        90% of tobacco users started before they were 18. http://www.idph.state.il.us/public/hb/hbsmoke.htm

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      • James says:

        Simple: when you discover that it’s too expensive and/or socially unacceptable, you quit. Been there, done that.

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  2. Eric M. Jones says:

    The ability to imagine a future worth living is the key to many life choices.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0
  3. Nil says:

    Many non-degree holders who earn salaries & insurance benefits equivalent to college degree holders do so by working in more hazardous occupations . Steel workers, miners, welders, construction workers, truck drivers, etc… may earn what appears to be white collar livings but do so in work environments that are much more unhealthy than an office building.

    Even if their “healthy behaviors” were similar, their occupational risks would tend to lead to higher mortality rates.

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  4. Abigail Wozniak says:

    Thank you for your interest in our work. It’s exciting to see it here. I just want to pass along that the most current version is available here: http://www3.nd.edu/~awaggone/papers/w19222.pdf.

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  5. colothin says:

    We exploit exogenous variation in college completion induced by draft-avoidance behavior during the Vietnam War to examine the impact of college completion on adult mortality. Our preferred estimatess imply that increasing college completion rates from the level of the state with the lowest induced rate to the highest would decrease

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