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Study Harder, Live Longer

So many indicators suggest how long people live. Education is an unmistakable correlation, but it’s possible we’ve been short-changing the importance of how connected these issues are.

A recent study, conducted by University of Illinois at Chicago public health professor S. Jay Olshansky, shows that education gaps in life expectancy have widened. Within racial and ethnic groups, the differences in life span between the most educated, those with 16 years or more of education, and individuals with less than 12 years of education, were significant: 6.5 years for black females, 9.7 years for black males, 10.4 years for white females and 12.9 years for white males. These results confirm previous studies that show alarming persistent divides among subgroups in the United States.

Education attainment has long been identified as a measure of health inequalities, but it is important to remember that factors influencing health do not operate in isolation from each other.  Education often indicates socioeconomic status, one of the major determinants of health.

However, in light of Olshansky’s study and others, we should pay closer attention to the degree to which education matters in prolonging lives.  

First, education attainment marks employment status. In the most recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor, the unemployment rate for high school dropouts was 11.3 percent. Obtaining a high school diploma decreased joblessness to 8.7 percent, and only 4.1 percent of college graduates were unemployed.

The reality is bleaker for our next generation who are feeling the effects of the bad economy. Nearly 40 percent of the youth who would have graduated in 2011 but instead dropped out, were unemployed. As companies are placing a stronger emphasis on hiring workers with technical skills, these numbers are projected to grow.

Second, education attainment correlates with employment earnings and benefits. High school graduates are projected to earn $9,000 more annually than high school dropouts. For college graduates, a bachelor’s degree is worth an additional $1.8 million over a lifetime.

Also, less-educated workers in lower paying jobs are less likely to have health-related benefits from their employer, such as health insurance and paid leave. Most Americans are covered by employer-sponsored health insurance; lower-wage workers typically are not offered it.  

Similarly, in 2011, 72 percent of workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher had access to paid sick and personal leave as opposed to only 35 percent of workers without a high school diploma. Because one of the most common reasons for taking paid leave are for illness and medical care, workers who do not have paid leave risk loss of pay and even their jobs should they become sick. Workers thus feel increased pressure to return to work, losing productivity and delaying treatment, which can exacerbate illnesses.

Nowhere are these implications more grim than in California, where nearly one in four high school students drops out.   While this rate is close to the national average, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation study ranks California last in the nation, with the largest health gap based on education attainment. The study found that 82 percent of people without a high school diploma described themselves as in “less than very good health” with problems such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease at a rate nearly three times as likely as college graduates.   

These statistics are staggering when considering that 42 percent of adults in California have no education beyond high school and that 28 percent of college attendees failed to gain a degree.

There are implications for future generations in the state as well. The same study found that compared with babies born to most-educated mothers, babies born to mothers with less education are approximately 50 percent more likely to die before their first birthdays.

And public support for education in California might worsen, even if ballot measures pass on Nov. 6 that would provide new revenue for schools. While education accounts for more than half of current state spending, the California education system is facing extreme budget cuts of nearly $6 billion which will hamstring already-struggling public schools. A staggering $5.5 billion would be cut just from the state’s K-12 system, resulting in teacher layoffs, larger class sizes, and canceled summer school. All of these budget-slashing tactics have been shown to lead to increased rates of students dropping out.

With the upcoming federal and state elections, Americans should keep in mind the full range of benefits from a quality educational experience. Much more than the national economy is at stake.  So are the lives of our next generation.

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