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Educational attainment determines mortality

Here’s another reason to rethink the non-degree certificate approach to post-secondary education. According to a report issued last month by the Brookings Institution, people without four-year degrees die at a faster rate than people with higher educational attainment. Statistically, a lower level of education equates to a shorter life expectancy in the United States.

Researchers found that individuals who had attained a four-year degree by the age of 25 could expect to live on average an additional 59 years. In other words, the average age of mortality for these individuals was 84 years of age. The pandemic reduced this life expectancy by one year.

Those individuals who had not completed a four-year degree by the age of 25 could expect to live an additional 51.6 years, to age 77. Following the pandemic, this average age of mortality declined to 75 years.

One reason this observation is possible is that in 1992, the United States began tracking educational attainment at the time of death. There are now sufficient data on the impact of higher education to make these statements conclusively. The data are not sampled; these conclusions are an accurate reflection of what is happening to more educated and less educated individuals in the United States.

Further, researchers have now identified both the “mortality gap” – the difference in life expectancy between educated and non-educated individuals – and the increase in this gap over time. In 1992, when the educational attainment data were initially collected, the mortality gap between more educated and less educated individuals was about 2.5 years. Two decades and one pandemic later, the educational mortality gap is eight years. During the pandemic alone, when more educated people lost one year of life expectancy, less educated people lost more than three years on average.

Increased educational attainment needed to counter declining birth rates

That’s an excellent argument for more – not less – education. The birth rate in the US peaked in 1990, declined until 1996, then rose again until 2007. Since 2007, the birth rate in the US has declined precipitously. As a society, we cannot afford to lose a growing percentage of the workforce at an earlier age.

The declining birth rate points to a need to be able to do more with less if we are to maintain our current economic status. Michigan serves as a model for what happens when we lower the educational attainment rate. Currently, Michigan ranks 20th among all states in terms of its high school graduation rate. It ranks 34th among all states for the percentage of the population with a four-year college degree. (The District of Columbia ranks first; Massachusetts ranks second.) If you look at the economic status of states, states with the highest levels of education attainment also have the highest personal incomes.

State 4-year degree percentagePersonal Income Rank
District of Columbia 63.05%
Massachusetts 50.62% 1
Maryland 48.55% 11
Vermont 44.44% 22
Colorado 44.42% 5
New Jersey 43.1% 3
Connecticut 42.13% 2
Virginia 41.81% 12
New Hampshire 40.98% 8
Washington 40.97% 7
Michigan 31.67% 39

The higher one’s education level is, the more income one makes and the better access one has to health care, higher quality food, better quality housing, and better environmental conditions.

Encouraging people to settle for lower educational attainment merely guarantees a long-term economic disaster. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

Photo Credit: Illinois Springfield, via Flickr