The Connection Between High School Graduation and Health

Nov 6, 2013, 1:31 PM


“For too long, we’ve thought of health as something that happens to you in a doctor’s office,” explained Howard Koh, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Health on Monday at the American Public Health Association (APHA) 2013 meeting. “We have about 20 leading health indicators that we look at closely, one of them is high school graduation.”

Koh went on to describe social efforts such as boosting graduation rates as among the most important things we can do to improve health for the future. He also discussed the important role that learning plays in being healthy—and that being healthy can also free kids up to focus and get a better education. The assistant secretary’s sentiments kicked off a panel on the indelible connection between the nation’s drop-out crisis and public health, and the ways in which we can achieve success in both.

Robert Balfanz of the Johns Hopkins School of Education began by describing the drop out epidemic: the overall graduation rate in the United States is as low as 78 percent and is far lower in some communities with the greatest inequities. In fact, one third of all schools produce 85 percent of the country’s drop outs. Chronic absenteeism, often related to student health, is the leading cause of the issue. For example, 25 percent of students in one city missed a year or more of schooling over a five-year period.

Health factors have a significant impact on academic success and graduation rates. According to Charles Basch of Teachers College at Columbia University, health issues such as poor vision, asthma and teen pregnancy inhibit student success, disproportionately so in children of urban, minority communities. Left unaddressed, these issues can form causal pathways to the increased likelihood of dropping out.

Improved academic achievement can lead to better health outcomes at all levels of education. The City University of New York School of Public Health’s Nicholas Freudenberg offered surprising data about the impact of the drop-out crisis on life expectancy. In the year 2000, lack of a high school diploma was associated with nearly 245,000 deaths. High school graduation is connected to lower stress, better access to health care and improved cognitive capacity—all key elements of health protection.

“If you don’t get out of school, it’s hard to imagine how you get out of poverty,” said Balfanz.

By educating policymakers and the public about the human costs of the drop out crisis, public health professionals can frame the debate around graduation rates as a health issue and ameliorate the education inequities that exist in many communities. Programs such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Forward Promise initiative recognize this connection between graduation and health and seek to help young men of color grow up healthy, obtain a good education and find meaningful employment.

View more: NewPublicHealth’s “Better Education = Healthier Lives” infographic tells a visual story on the role of education in the health of our communities.

>>NewPublicHealth will be on the ground throughout the APHA conference speaking to public health leaders and presenters, hearing from attendees on the ground and providing updates from sessions, with a focus on how we can build a culture of health. Follow the coverage here.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.