Americans With a Bachelor’s Can Live 8.5 Years Longer Than Those Without One

Differences in education correlate with life-changing disparities.
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Gillian Manning
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Gillian Manning serves on a volunteer-basis for the Society of Professional Journalists, assisting with educational and fundraising initiatives. She is a freelance writer with a BA in multimedia journalism from Florida Atlantic University. She’s writ...
Published on October 25, 2023
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  • Disparities between those with and without a degree have grown over the last three decades.
  • Suicide, substance use, cardiovascular disease, and COVID-19 are notable factors in the widening gap in life expectancy.
  • Economists point to pay imbalances, barriers to care, and American laws.

Americans with college degrees are living longer, while those without one continue to see rising mortality rates.

The life expectancies for those with and without bachelor's degrees, according to a Brookings Papers on Economic Activity report by Princeton economists, have taken a stark and divergent path over the past three decades. Their analysis points to a critical link between education, income, and both physical and mental health.

While the average life expectancy for Americans with bachelor's degrees has steadily risen since 1992, it’s fallen for individuals without one — particularly since 2010. The only period where life expectancy for those with a bachelor's decreased was during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even then, however, Americans without bachelor's degrees struggled more.

The disparity in life expectancy between these two groups has grown consistently. In 1992, the difference was about 2.6 years. In 2019, it was 6.3 years, and in 2021, the difference rose to 8.5 years.

There are a few key causes of death that the study looked into, such as deaths of despair — drug overdose, alcoholic liver disease, and suicide — as well as cancer, cardiovascular disease, respiratory diseases, and diabetes.

Access to Healthcare

Over the last few decades, cancer mortality rates have fallen. However, those with a BA have seen a more dramatic drop. A possible barrier that those without a bachelor's face, the authors noted, is access to healthcare and screenings.

There’s a substantial difference in lifetime earnings between those who do and don’t have a bachelor's. Men with bachelor’s degrees earn a notable $900,000 more than those without. Women with bachelor's degrees earn about $630,000 more than women without bachelor's degrees. Medical scans and treatments aren’t as accessible to those with a lower income.

The Medical Toll of Stress

Deaths of despair are also more prominent in Americans without a bachelor's. An individual without a bachelor's may have a harder time finding a stable, well-paying job. The report's authors note that employer-sponsored health insurance, which is how most Americans get their insurance, isn’t as accessible for those with lower-paying jobs.

The American employer-sponsored insurance system destroys good jobs, widens inequality, and lowers wages, the authors concluded. Other rich countries do not finance healthcare in this way.

The combined stress of no health insurance and unreliable income means that those without a bachelor's can not only experience more stress than their more educated peers, but their stress is much more likely to have long-term effects. Those who are low-income are also more likely to struggle with mental health and addiction as a result of the added stress.

Addiction and Depression

Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health report that 16% of low-income Americans experience depression compared to 3.5% of those above the poverty line. Low-income Americans are much more likely to turn to substance abuse as a coping mechanism for their stress and depression.

This directly correlates with the findings from the Brookings Papers report. Deaths of despair mortality rates were more than double for those without a bachelor's. Not counting COVID-19 — where those without a bachelor's see a much higher mortality rate as well — drug overdose was the leading cause for the widening gap between those with and without a degree since 1992.

The report's authors wrote, Death is particularly indicative of societal failure.

Politics and Socioeconomic Issues

The Brookings Papers report notes that policies in Republican-controlled states are ultimately a detriment to the health of the working class.

Corporate-sponsored laws pushed in Republican spheres, such as minimum wage disputes, right-to-work laws, pollution, guns, and tobacco taxes and controls, all have an impact on those without a bachelor's degree.

One important example the authors point to is cardiovascular disease (CVD). Smoking causes 1 in 4 cardiovascular deaths, and Southern states are much less likely to implement meaningful tobacco taxes or other deterrents. CVD deaths are second behind deaths of despair in America’s widening gap in life expectancy. Americans without a bachelor's saw 27 deaths per 100,000 people, compared to 4 per 100,000 for those with a bachelor's degree.

European countries with better safety nets and protections for trade work also have various trends in mortality rates between less and more educated individuals, but the United States is the only country where life expectancies are trending in completely opposite directions.