Immunizations, fluoridated drinking water, the reduction in tobacco use. These are among America’s 10 greatest public-health achievements in the 20th century, according to the Centers for Disease Control. One fix that doesn’t come up often in conversations about improving Americans’ health outcomes? Increasing the number of people who get high-school degrees.
There are lots of well-known benefits associated with higher educational attainment: Graduates earn better incomes, are less likely to end up in jail, and lead healthier lives. The federal government’s Healthy People 2020 agenda, which outlines goals for promoting health and preventing disease, acknowledges this association, setting targets for increasing the percentage of high-school students who graduate on time. There's already a body of research that shows someone without a diploma is more at risk of premature death than someone who does have one.
Until now, however, there has been relatively little known about the proportion of early deaths that can be linked to dropping out.
A new study by researchers at the University of Colorado, New York University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill may have the answer. The study, which was published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE, looked at the relative risk of death among people with various levels of education and compared that with the distribution of educational attainment across the U.S. population. And what the analysis found, said co-researcher Virginia Chang, was “really quite surprising.”