College Selectivity and Young Adult Health Behaviors

For the first time, research reveals strong evidence that the selectivity of the college attended (a measure of school quality) has an impact on a person’s health behaviors both during, and for years after college.

There are well-known links between health outcomes and the quantity of completed education, as well as between the quality of schooling and adult outcomes, such as wages, that can impact health. But this is the first work to examine the link between the selectivity of the college attended and health behaviors during, and for years after, school. This research relies on information from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, specifically survey data from 4,200 individuals enrolled in college in 2001-2002, who were also surveyed during high school and again between the ages of 26 and 32. School selectivity was measured using national rankings of median SAT scores of entering students.

Key Findings:

  • There is strong evidence that attending a selective college significantly reduces tobacco smoking and marijuana use both during and for years after college; but evidence suggests that attending such a college may slightly increase binge drinking at both points in time.
  • There is also evidence to suggest people who attend selective colleges have healthier weight-related measures during college, which tend to further improve later in life. These weight outcomes appear to result from healthier diets, rather than any difference in exercise behavior.
  • The quantity of school completed, income and marital status are not “key mechanisms” in these associations.

The authors note that the potential effects on population health of raising the quality of education, even while holding the quantity constant, should be considered in educational funding decisions. They suggest future research is needed to determine how quality shapes health behaviors and posit that health literacy and health knowledge, as well as “peer effects” during college, may be important factors.