A Matter of Life and Death

Buck Goldstein
Entrepreneur in Residence and Professor of the Practice UNC-Chapel Hill

A college degree is worth a decade of life. That’s according to a pair of economists, one a Nobel laureate, who first sounded the alarm on “deaths of despair” in the United States and have since become searing critics of the deep educational divide in our society. In a study, just published, in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Professors Anne Case and Sir Angus Deaton document the astonishing and growing gap in life expectancy between Americans with and without a college degree. Equally surprising, beginning around 1990, education has become a sharper differentiator than race when measuring American life expectancy.

A deeper dive makes the study even more shocking. The college degree wage premium has been generally accepted for some time.  It reached 80% in 2010 and at this point, there is little question that those with a BA or better do better financially. This new study establishes that college graduates live longer as well. American life expectancy increased steadily between 1890 and 1990. This trend continued through 2020 for more educated Americans regardless of race or ethnicity. For the population as a whole, the improvement then stalled and for the two-thirds of Americans without a college degree, life expectancy is actually decreasing.

The study suggests that this decrease is caused in large part by drugs, suicide, and alcoholic liver disease —deaths of despair. This same group of less-educated Americans report an increase in pain of all kinds, disability, and divorce. They also have decreasing rates of church attendance, employment, and income. All the recent decrease in American life expectancy can be attributed to the portion of the population without a college degree.

When the data is sorted by race and ethnicity, additional surprising findings are revealed.  As between blacks and whites, the downturn in life expectancy occurs only among those without a BA. In fact, the trend is so pronounced that Black people with a BA, who until the late 1990s trailed whites without one, now have a life expectancy almost equal to white college graduates and far greater than those without a BA.  Among the non-college-educated, the gaps by education group became substantially larger over time.
Although the study does not attempt to determine the causes of the huge difference between Americans with and without a degree the authors suggest some possibilities. They focus on automation and the increased demands for a more educated workforce to implement advanced solutions together with the rising cost of employer-provided healthcare. Combined, these megatrends have reduced the supply of good, well-paid jobs for people without a BA. Significantly, the authors’ focus is on the broad social and economic processes in which the BA is used to separate people and not on the intrinsic value of the BA itself.

The impact of this separation is clear. For Americans without a college diploma, it is increasingly difficult to create a financially viable or socially meaningful life. The idea that a child’s life span will be shorter than those of his parents is unthinkable, but since 1990 this has become a reality for up to two-thirds of Americans, especially white males.

Case and Deaton expressly refrain from speculating about the all-important question of causation; does the knowledge and experience gained by going to college, apart from the credential, produce a better-qualified workforce and a healthier and happier citizenry?  Would technical job training accomplish the same goal in less time and at a lower cost? If the answer to the first question is yes, the tougher question is what is magic about a college degree? Much has been written about the value of a college education, but we do not yet fully understand the learning outcomes that are critical to bridge the gap between those with and without a BA.

In terms of policy, I suspect Case and Deaton would argue for job training and universal health care as the best ways to address the gap in the short run. Universal Guaranteed Income would be added to the list by others. My own sense is such policy, while important, only addresses part of the problem.  The philosopher Michael Sandel contends that the college degree is now a condition for dignified work and social esteem. For Americans without a college degree, it is increasingly difficult to build a meaningful and successful life. Cultural norms conspire to brand non-college-educated Americans as failures and that is unlikely to change anytime soon. Until it does, focusing public resources on dramatically increasing the number of Americans with a degree must be a national imperative. It is a matter of life and death.


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