Authors: Lauren Gaydosh, Kristen M. Schorpp, Edith Chen, Gregory E. Miller, Kathleen Mullan Harris
Individuals with higher educational attainment live healthier and longer lives. However, not everyone benefits equally from higher education. In particular, the black–white gap in life expectancy is greater at higher levels of educational attainment. Furthermore, recent research suggests that disadvantaged African Americans in the rural Southeast who attend college have worse physical health than their similarly disadvantaged peers who do not attend college. The extent to which this pattern generalizes to a nationally representative, mixed-race sample is unknown. Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, we test whether the health benefits associated with college completion vary by level of childhood disadvantage for depression and metabolic syndrome in young adulthood, across race/ethnicity. We find uniform lower depression associated with college completion regardless of childhood disadvantage, and across non-Hispanic white, non-Hispanic black, and Hispanic young adults. College completion is associated with lower metabolic syndrome for whites across all levels of childhood disadvantage. In contrast, college completion is associated with higher metabolic syndrome among black and Hispanic young adults from disadvantaged childhood environments. Our findings suggest that, for minorities from disadvantaged backgrounds, finishing college pays substantial dividends for mental health but simultaneously exacts costs with regard to physical health. This pattern contrasts starkly with whites and minorities from more privileged backgrounds, for whom college completion is associated with benefits to both mental and physical health. These results suggest that racial disparities in health may persist in part because the health of upwardly mobile minorities is compromised in young adulthood.