Demographers have known and reported for a long time that college graduates have longer life expectancies than do their fellow citizens that have a high school degree or lower educational attainment. For example, a 2010 study reported that average life expectancy for American men and women with a high school diploma averaged 76 and 81 years respectively. The life expectancies of those men and women who are college graduates were 82 and 87 years respectively. In other words, both college men and women could look forward to an average of 6 more years than high school graduates.
A new study from scholars associated with the Brookings Institution bolsters these earlier findings. The press release reports that
an additional year of college decreases mortality rates by 15 to 19 percent by reducing deaths from cancer and heart disease….The study, which notes that health benefits from education could increase the total returns to education by 15 to 55 percent, is important for policymakers currently grappling with proposals to reduce the high cost of college….The researchers point to prior research showing the correlation between education and health, including later life mortality. For example, high school graduates have a mortality rate that is double those with some college or a college degree, which "represents a significant non-pecuniary return to education. They would also imply that policies meant to increase educational attainment could serve as an important means for improving health."
In their Brookings notice, the authors suggest, "If individual investments in college education are suboptimal because of credit constraints, externalities, or lack of information, the presence of additional health returns to college strengthens the case for subsidizing education."
It is true that U.S. life expectancy has been climbing at the same time that the percentage of Americans with college degrees has been increasing. The new study claims to have identified a causal relationship between more education and better health. In their earlier NBER version of the study, the researchers note that college educated folks tend to smoke less, weigh less, exercise more, and have health insurance. The result is that they tend to experience heart disease and cancer (lung and colon) at later ages. The researchers suggest that "the impacts on cancer (especially lung cancer) and heart disease may be partially explained by the differences in behavior." So does college teach the habits of delayed and restrained gratification that produce healthier lifestyles, or do folks who already have those habits tend to graduate from college?