Finishing that degree matters in health outcomes

The positive relationship between a person’s education levels and their health is a well-established – the more the better.

But there is a relatively unexplored middle group, one Western researcher believes, who holds the key to understanding how additional schooling influences health outcomes at the upper end of the educational spectrum.

Sociology professor Anna Zajacova explores individuals who finished high school and completed some postsecondary education, but never graduated. This group has remained relatively untouched by researchers, even though it is a gigantic cohort.


“They were always lumped together and called ‘high school completers,'” she said. “This group is in the tens of millions of people. It’s the biggest group out there when you look at educational categories.”

With data from her time at the University of Wyoming, Zajacova found those who started but did not complete their postsecondary studies reported more health conditions, more disabilities, more functional limitations, more pain and, to some degree, worse mental health.

In terms of overall health, they fell right in the middle – slightly better off than high school graduates but far worse off than those with a postsecondary diploma.

Zajacova has been looking at similar data on this side of the border since joining Western in 2017. While the Canadian postsecondary system is different than the United States in many ways – from possible educational paths to costs – she is interested to see if similarities exist around health outcomes.

In an earlier study, she looked at individuals who had obtained trade certificates that showed, especially in men, they weren’t all doing better in terms of general health despite having better jobs and higher incomes that high school graduates.

Her current study, however, offered some surprises, given the important role completion played in health.

“We have looked at a number of suspects like income, student loan debt, health behaviours that are causing these health outcomes. On their own, they are not necessarily explaining what’s going on,” Zajacova said. “We know the types of things that are not explaining it. It’s sort of like Sherlock Holmes in eliminating suspects.”

Maybe employment quality are affecting health outcomes, or maybe the act of trying and failing at university of college can have an effect on their confidence levels. The direct factors are not totally clear yet, she continued.

“Some potential lead suspects haven’t been eliminated yet. Maybe people who are more likely not to stick with university are similar to people who will not stick with other things – and that then affects their health. We don’t know.”

Decades ago, a high school diploma was a ticket to success. Then, any postsecondary education helped lead to a better life. But as more and more people got more and more education, that education becomes less valuable in some ways, she continued.

“A few generations ago, a high school diploma would have been great for middle class life, now bachelor degrees barely suffice,” she said. “The boundary where people are going to expect to see the returns will just keep moving higher, towards masters degrees, perhaps.”

Given the majority of young adults now complete at least some postsecondary education, it is crucial to understand how additional schooling matters for health at the upper end of the educational distribution.

“Health is a reflection in which, unless now you complete a university degree, you’re not seeing much in the way of return to your life,” Zajacova said.

“We may then want to expand to other outcomes (for not completing your degree) that would allow us to see things like marital behaviour, child-bearing behaviour, political behaviour. This would allow you to see these little aspects of people’s lives and see where those gaps are.”

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