College Access and Adult Health

31 Pages Posted: 22 Jan 2020

See all articles by Benjamin Cowan

Benjamin Cowan

Washington State University

Nathan Tefft

Bates College

Date Written: January 2020


We investigate the relationship between college openings, college attainment, and health behaviors and outcomes later in life. Though a large prior literature attempts to isolate the causal effect of education on health via instrumental variables (IV), most studies use instruments that affect schooling behavior in childhood or adolescence, i.e. before the college enrollment decision. Our paper examines whether an increase in 2- and 4-year institutions per capita (“college accessibility”) in a state contributes to higher college attainment and better health later in life. Using 1980-2015 Census and American Community Survey data, we find consistent evidence that accessibility of public 2-year institutions positively affects schooling attainment and subsequent employment and earnings levels, particularly among whites and Hispanics. With restricted-use 1984-2000 National Health Interview Survey data, we again find that public 2-year accessibility increases schooling and benefits a host of health behaviors and outcomes in adulthood: it deters smoking, raises exercise levels, and improves self-reported health. However, most long-term health conditions are unaffected, which may be partially due to the age of our sample.

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Suggested Citation

Cowan, Benjamin and Tefft, Nathan, College Access and Adult Health (January 2020). NBER Working Paper No. w26685, Available at SSRN:

Benjamin Cowan (Contact Author)

Washington State University ( email )

Nathan Tefft

Bates College ( email )

Lewiston, ME 04240
United States

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