Arnold Kling  

Schooling and Health

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Juntas vs. Open Societies... Avoiding Truth...

Gina Kolata of the New York Times discusses research showing that staying in school longer tends to extend life. A key paper is by Adriana Lleras-Muney. Her approach to sorting out causality and confounding effects:


between 1915 and 1939, at least 30 states changed their compulsory schooling laws and child labor laws. If compulsory schooling laws forced people to get more schooling than they would have chosen otherwise, and if education increases health, then individuals who spent their teens in states that required them to go to school for more years should be relatively healthier and live longer.

Suppose that a law was passed in a given state saying that all children born after January 1, 1925 had to attend school through 10th grade, where previously they only had to attend through 6th grade. Then, if we observe a discontinuity in the longevity of people born after January 1, 1925 compared to people born just before, this is plausibly due to greater schooling. Greg Mankiw rightly points out the value of such methodology.

I am inclined to a prior that the value of years of schooling tends to be overstated in general, which makes me a "motivated skeptic" of the Lleras-Muney result. But I am hard pressed to come up with an attack on her appoach.

Still, the quantitative effects are small. Kolata writes,


It turned out that life expectancy at age 35 was extended by as much as one and a half years simply by going to school for one extra year.

For someone who hates school, this might not be compelling. (If spending a year in prison increased your life expectancy by eighteen months, would that make you want to do time?)

To me, the main value of Kolata's piece is to point out that not all improvements in longevity and other health outcomes are due to medical treatment. This is an important fact to keep in mind.

UPDATE: For more on this topic, see this paper by David Cutler and Lleras-Muney.


Behavioral differences by education are large. Nearly 30 percent of people with less than a high school degree smoke, three times the rate of people with a college degree. Twenty-four percent of people with less than a high school degree are obese; twice the rate as college graduates. Eight percent of adults who have not completed high school are heavy drinkers, double the rate of college graduates. The impact of these three behaviors on overall differences in health is significant.


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COMMENTS (17 to date)

I commented on this over in Marginal Revolution to say that (from a variety of evidence) I think it is probably true that extra schooling improves life expectancy and increases health, and that this may be due to inculcation of abstract systematic thinking - www.hedweb.com/bgcharlton/ed-expansion

My feeling is that AK is too sceptical about the benefits of a prolonged formal education (and of modern medicine, incidentally). It is too dismissive to equate education with a year in jail (college like jail? per-leese!) to get 18 months extra life - because the education effect is only one measure of the several positive effects of education - on salaries, happiness and so on.

When you add them up, college education looks like one of the best time investments you can make. The proper question, IMO, is what should be studied at college, and the answer - I believe - is science: as much science as each individual can stand!

The second question is how to study, and the answer is probably by traditional formal means, including lectures - as much as each individual can stand...

Tom Crispin writes:

More education also correlates with a greater probability of working "white-collar" rather than "blue-collar". Is the increased life expectancy from education a proxy for the increased longevity of (say) bank clerks compared with coal miners?

FMB writes:

Is it possible that this is a proxy for living in a state that's relatively wealthy and/or that's experiencing economic growth?

Nathan Smith writes:

"The quantitative effects are small?" One year of school lengthens your life by eighteen months? That sounds like a large quantitative effect to me! Yes, I think I might do time in prison if it would lengthen my life by a year and a half (depending on the quality of the year-and-a-half: a healthy year and a half is different than wasting away in a nursing home a bit more slowly).

Question to Bruce Charlton: why should the longer life be attributable to science? Maybe knowing how to appreciate a poem reduces stress levels. Anyway, shouldn't people study what they want to study? You're making policy recommendations about something that shouldn't be (reducible to) a policy issue.

Vred writes:

As FMB asks, how is the method used by Muney able to separate the fact that it is seems likely that mandatory schooling will be implemented in states with higher economic growth, and also important, strong beliefs in future economic growth?

I assume that she includes income measures and so on in each state to control for this. Is that enough? Someone that has read the papers that can comment?

Reply to Nathan Smith - you'd have to read my stuff to get the details; but essentially I think the core element of formal education is to teach people systematic abstract thinking. Science includes the most systematic disciplines (in science I include mathematics, economics, music theory, and some aspects of the social sciences especially when quantitative - sociology, political science etc.) I am not anti-humanities and arts (I have an MA in English Lit.), but I don't think these are the essence of formal education - and they never really were.

spencer writes:

I think that your assumption about what the people in the study would have learned in school is very unrealistic.

In the early 1950s my father was the principle of a small school in rural Georgia that taught first thru ninth grade. He taught the ninth grade and for the majority of his students this would be their last year of school. So the type of lessons he taught them was things like how to balance a check book, , how to follow a receipe, how to fill out a job application, and other pratical lessons. These students that dropped out of school at 16 were the type of individual that would have been impacted by compulsory education laws from 1915 to 1939.

spencer writes:

Does anyone here personally know a ninth grade drop-out so they can have some idea about how to evaluate or compare their world view to that of a PhD economist.

In the above comment about the school in Georgia think "Deliverence". I made sure my kids wached that and in "The Heat of the Night" to understand what it use to be like in this country and what the libertarians want to take us back to. The banjo player and the hunters in that movie are the people you are talking about when you discuss the impact of schooling on drop-outs.

Keith writes:

"I made sure my kids wached that and in "The Heat of the Night" to understand what it use to be like in this country and what the libertarians want to take us back to."

Wow, that is totally non-manipulative and completely intellectually honest. Really. And you really think the South was libertarian? Either you don't know history and/or you don't know libertarianism.

Bruce, I think your argument for college education doesn't really apply here, since the compulsory schooling laws would have increased high-school education. The effects of compulsory schooling laws on college education would be very marginal.

In fact, a lot of this research seems to imply that higher education is a very poor government investment relative to other types of education.

James writes:

Spencer,

I am a libertarian. I do not want to take society out of the present statist experiment back to some other statist experiment of yesteryear. I know of no libertarian who does. Please try to be more truthful.

John Thacker writes:

The banjo player and the hunters in that movie are the people you are talking about when you discuss the impact of schooling on drop-outs.

Right. Because compulsory schooling can force people like that to go to high school and make life hell for the nerds and geeks who would go there willingly anyway, instead of being off somewhere else. Was that your point?

There are students who refuse to get anything out of school and who significantly worsen the educational experience for others. I don't doubt that compulsory schooling could make some people get education that they later realize is valuable. But there are some people who would be better off with less formal schooling, and it would make their classmates better off.

John Thacker writes:

But I am hard pressed to come up with an attack on her appoach.

If I were striving for an attack, I would say:

"States changing their laws on education reflected changing social mores and value placed on education by the majority in the state in the first place. In addition, those states were likely states which were rapidly industrializing, civilizing, and growing economically, transforming into societies where education contained a greater payoff. Both the longer span and the increase in education are caused by this deeper change. It is unlikely that the states would have adopted the change in education policy had not the underlying transformation of society (economically and culuturally already occurred.) A better test would be one where compulsory education was adopted against the express wishes of the populace."

Snark writes:
Yes, I think I might do time in prison if it would lengthen my life by a year and a half

You're insane! A year in prison could haunt you for a lifetime.

Liberty or death!

Bruce G Charlton writes:

It has taken me a while to realize that some commentators are assuming that if extra years of education increase life expectancy, then people should be forced to stay at school/college longer to ensure they have the benefit.

Not so. I believe the data and theory that extra years of education have great benefits including health ones - BUT I do not favour extension of compulsory schooling beyond about 16 (adulthood).

Indeed, I believe that modernizing societies should drop compulsory education. I think that compulsory education (in modern societies) harms many more people than it helps. It main rationale *now* (not when introduced in the 19th century), albeit indirect, is statist and bureacratic.

Rose writes:

Spencer asked, "Does anyone here personally know a ninth grade drop-out so they can have some idea about how to evaluate or compare their world view to that of a PhD economist[?]"

My dad dropped out in 9th grade back in the mid-70's. He also happens to be a really smart guy who reads regularly. We certainly had hard times when I was growing up, but now, at age 46, he runs his own small business and makes over $100K per year. Not bad, I'd say.

triticale writes:
Does anyone here personally know a ninth grade drop-out so they can have some idea about how to evaluate or compare their world view to that of a PhD economist.
The first two 9th grade dropouts who come to my mind are Dave Thomas (altho he later got a GED) and Daniel K. Ludwig.
Bob Knaus writes:

My dad is an 8th grade dropout, from the early 1950s. As an adult, he taught himself classical Greek so he could read some of the Bible in the original. His world view does differ markedly from that of an economics PhD, but I ascribe that more to his religion than to his education.

I went to visit my parents over Christmas. At age 74, dad's cancer is getting worse. He wanted me to know that he had enough money saved up in CD's so that mom could live comfortably on the interest. Turns out that is about $50K per year at current rates.

Not bad for an 8th grade education.

Oh, and mine's only 12th. Maybe I'll live longer? But I didn't want to take any chances on that. So I retired at 40, and now I live in the Bahamas on a sailboat.

Of course... these are all anecdotes... and not data :-)

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