Go to college to live longer? WSU economist receives grant to study health effects of higher learning

There’s a familiar correlation in social science: more education is associated with increased health in society. Now a WSU researcher will use a new grant from the Evidence for Action Program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to examine whether more education can actually contribute to better health later in life.

Formal portrait photo of Ben Cowan
Ben Cowan

Ben Cowan, an associate professor in the School of Economic Sciences, leads the study with colleague Nathan Tefft at Bates College in Maine. Cowan said the dramatic increase in two-year colleges in the period from 1960 to 1990 is an ideal experiment to study the correlation.

“We want to focus on two-year colleges because it’s a great way to differentiate populations,” Cowan explained. “States increased their funding to two-year institutions at different times over that span of time, and some states didn’t really expand them very much. So, we can compare results between states and in different time periods.”

The researchers also want to study two-year colleges because those tend to increase access to education to underserved groups, like low-income people or racial or ethnic minorities, Cowan said.

The grant from the foundation is just under $200,000 for two years, and will allow Cowan to look at two different data sets to compile his research.

They hope to find out if making college education more accessible, like adding more community colleges or reducing tuition costs, leads to better health outcomes later in life.

“There’s a debate over whether we should be investing in higher education as opposed to other societal goals,” Cowan said. “We want to truly understand any benefits of that investment, especially if two-year institutions help lead to better outcomes later in life. That would show a return on investment that is higher than we previously thought.”

In addition to eventually publishing their results in academic journals, Cowan hopes to also make any findings available to policy makers and higher education administrators.

“We want to make sure decision makers have all the information on the costs and benefits of funding higher education,” he said. “Even if our results show there isn’t this benefit, that’s important for decision-makers to know.”

This research was supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation through its Evidence for Action program. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation.