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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.