Is Attending A Selective College Good for Your Health?

A study by RWJF scholars finds that students at selective colleges and universities are less likely to smoke cigarettes, use marijuana and be overweight, but slightly more likely than other college students to binge drink.

    • September 26, 2011

When it comes to health, there is already a familiar list of do's and don'ts: Eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. Exercise regularly. Use sunscreen. Don't smoke or abuse drugs and alcohol.

Now there is one more instruction to add to the list: Attend a selective college or university.

A Harvard degree, in other words, may be good for the mind and, in many ways, the body.

That is the conclusion of a new study by Jason Fletcher, PhD, an associate professor in the School of Public Health at Yale University and a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Health & Society Scholar (2010), and David Frisvold, PhD, an assistant professor of economics at Emory University and an alumnus of the RWJF Scholars in Health Policy Research program (2006-2008).

Students at highly selective public and private colleges and universities are less likely to smoke cigarettes or marijuana or to be overweight, according to the study.

The findings do not apply to alcohol use, however. Students at highly selective colleges were slightly more likely to engage in binge drinking—consuming five alcoholic drinks in one sitting—than were students at less selective colleges. "These findings suggest additional benefits to attending a selective college than previously considered as well as new directions in investigating the mechanisms linking education and health outcomes," Fletcher and Frisvold write in a recently released article in the journal Economics of Education Review.

These benefits hold beyond the college years, according to the study. Young adults who attended selective colleges engaged in healthier behaviors than their peers from less selective schools almost a decade later.

For the RWJF-funded study, Fletcher and Frisvold analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which surveys individuals in high school and follows them through young adulthood.

Study is First to Explore Link Between College Selectivity and Student Health.

The study is the first to explore the link between college selectivity and the health behaviors of young adults. Existing research shows links between the selectivity of education and other outcomes such as wages and lifetime earnings. Other studies explore the relationship between the quantity of education and health, showing that merely attending college or university carries health benefits for young adults. But until now, there has been no empirical research exploring the implications of the quality of education on the health of young people. (The authors equate a college's selectivity with its quality.)

Fletcher and Frisvold posit a number of factors that could explain the protective health benefits of selective colleges. Students at such colleges may have more knowledge of health and health care than students at less selective colleges or they may surround themselves with different types of peer groups, Fletcher says. He and Frisvold are now tracking down a data set that will enable them to unlock "the black box of college quality" so they can better understand why students at highly selective colleges are more likely to engage in some healthier behaviors.

What is clear is that providing legislative incentives to attend more selective colleges will not improve the health of the young adult population, since, by definition, there is a fixed number of slots at these few colleges and universities, Fletcher says. In addition, many selective colleges, especially private ones, are unaffordable or otherwise inaccessible to some students.

Rather, Fletcher sees opportunities to improve health by strengthening the infrastructures of less selective colleges and universities so that they better mimic more selective schools. Policies that increase government funding of state-funded schools could boost student resources and provide more support for faculty, potentially giving students there the same kind of health benefits that their peers in more selective schools receive, he says.

Unfortunately, the opposite is occurring now due to the recession. "State budget cuts may hurt population health," Fletcher says.