Higher Education may Improve your Life Expectancy by as much as 10 Years in the United States

America's economic record over the past 20 years is impressive, outperforming that of all other wealthy countries. Less impressive, however, is the level of well-being, or life expectancy, of its people. Although life expectancy at birth rose from 49 to 77 years in the last century, it has dropped considerably in recent years, in contrast to other wealthy nations.

Researchers Anne Case and Angus Deaton of Princeton University were the first to sound the alarm about deaths of despair from suicide, overdose and alcoholism. They showed a huge and growing gap (of up to 10 years) between the life expectancy of people with college degrees and those without. While people with higher education become healthier and wealthier, those without a degree are literally dying of pain and despair. The authors cast light on the social and economic forces that make it harder for middle-class Americans to survive in a context of declining labor participation, rising corporate power and, above all, a highly overpriced yet inadequate U.S. healthcare system.

In today's world, a man's life story is almost entirely determined by his access to higher education. This has become increasingly predictive of financial security, through job prospects and wage levels, as well as social integration and participation in community life.

The history of education: a gradual transformation from "public good" to "private good"

In the 1940s, an ambitious and socially conscious federal government came close to making higher education a public good. Instead, it settled for the GI Bill. It transformed education from a government-funded "public good" into a "private good" paid for by the student's (wealthy) parents or with borrowed money. In so doing, it ultimately turned higher education into a "luxury good" for which the taxpayer should bear no burden.

In every generation or so, American leaders made consequential decisions that moved the nation further away from the G.I. Bill's promise that higher education could be a public good.

As a result of policy and cultural changes introduced since the 1960s, colleges have become outrageously expensive. Today’s college grads collectively owe upwards of $1.7 trillion.

One of the tragic consequences of this development is the current resentful political polarization, which increasingly pits those with college degrees against those without. This is the "not-so-quiet majority" that would eventually be seduced by Donald Trump's siren song of grievance. In the meantime, the cultural and political divisions between the two groups will continue to grow deeper as new technologies make it easier to find alternative sources of information or misinformation, in lieu of a true education that shapes critical thinking.

Shifting economic focus: lack of upward mobility and income inequality

Manufacturing used to be the primary engine of employment growth for four decades, but it has now largely disappeared, relocating abroad to take advantage of cheaper labor. In June 1979, manufacturing employment reached an all-time high of 19.6 million. In June 2019, the figure was 12.8 million, down 6.7 million or 35% on the historic peak. In the five recessions since 1979, the number of jobs has plummeted and never recovered to pre-recession levels.

Growth in the US economy has shifted to the service sector, notably professional and business services, education and healthcare, leisure and hospitality, all of which require special levels of qualification.

As factories closed, many medium-skilled workers earning middle-class wages were forced out of their high-quality manufacturing jobs to take low-paying jobs in the service sector, with few opportunities for advancement, thus contributing to a "widening" of the income gap and rising inequality.

Formal education has traditionally been seen as the great equalizer. It has allowed people from all walks of life the prospect of equal opportunity, if not equal outcomes. In today's information age, the role of formal education keeps growing steadily, driven largely by the shift towards a knowledge-based economy focused on specialized professional skills that cannot be taught informally.

Lack of social integration and social exclusion

Barriers to employment created by age, gender or low levels of education can lead to social exclusion. Social marginalization is a complex and multidimensional reality. It translates into a loss of access to resources, such as goods and services, as well as to rights and the ability to participate in the normal economic, social, cultural and political life of a society. Social exclusion amplifies symptoms of depression and anxiety, increases the risk of chronic diseases (hypertension, diabetes), weakens trust in society and accentuates subjective isolation. It affects both the quality of life of individuals and the cohesion of society as a whole.

Bad vibes around higher education

Negative public sentiment might dissuade many young people from attending college when it is in their long-term interest to do so. Rising student loan burdens are perceived to have eroded the value proposition of an advanced degree. Yet a historical analysis of the value of higher education reveals a massive wage premium: the average lifetime earnings of college graduates are significantly higher than those of non-graduates. Although the college wealth premium for past generations was initially low, it rose rapidly (by almost 80%) after the age of 40. As most student loans (federal and private) are repayable in 10 years, 17-year-old high school students are called upon to delay their gratification until age 35 or older... But the payoff is worth it!

What needs to be done?

The findings of Anne Case and Angus Deaton's study suggest that policy responses to the epidemic of deaths from despair must address the underlying social and economic conditions associated with these deaths.

They highlight the need for social interventions targeting the discrimination suffered by victims of an exclusionary education system, along with the structural factors of exclusion. To ensure that structural changes benefit all, policies should facilitate the requalification of displaced workers and reduce the cost of their reorientation. However, policymakers also need to be mindful that sectoral reallocation may be unfeasible for some workers (such as those close to retirement), so they need to strengthen safety nets and targeted redistribution policies accordingly.

For a country in which education is the premier means for promoting equal opportunity and upward mobility, increasing college access and success for low-income students is a moral, social, and economic imperative. Policymakers in Washington must reform the current financial aid system so that college becomes affordable for low-income students.

Case and Deaton condemn America’s healthcare system and healthcare industry more than any other sector, calling it a “cancer at the heart of the economy” due to its “extraordinary and extraordinarily inappropriate costs.” The system, which accounts for 18% of U.S. GDP, not only cuts into workers' wages, but also holds them down due to the cost of employer-provided coverage. They suggest a series of solutions to encourage lower prices and inclusion. Interestingly, however, they do not see "Medicare for all" as a panacea. They point out that many countries have successfully combined public and private care, that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and that the effects of transition must be taken into account.

Final thoughts

Growing inequality in America since the 1970s includes diverging fortunes for those with and without higher education.

Ideally, we would simply go back to treating higher education as a public good, but the political obstacles to that are likely unsurmountable, at least for now.

Any solution to the higher education problem has to deal with all its aspects: debt-relief; equitable access for those who are underserved; access to, and respect for, alternative paths such as trade schools.

A reformed higher education system at the service of the common good would help revive the American dream and America itself, correcting the economic inequalities and political polarization that now threaten it.

I’d like to close with a quote from Benjamin Franklin, 1749: “Nothing can more effectually contribute to the Cultivation and Improvement of a Country, the Wisdom, Riches, and Strength, Virtue and Piety, the Welfare and Happiness of a People, than a proper Education of youth, by forming their Manners, imbuing their tender Minds with Principles of Rectitude and Morality, [and] instructing them in… all useful Branches of liberal Arts and Science.”

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