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Why college may help you live longer

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MoneyWatch headlines 01:04

As the U.S. swirled into the maelstrom of the national election, little-noticed research about college emerged: Having a college education can extend your life.

That was the finding of a study by the Brookings Institution. Getting a degree is certainly no guarantee that you’ll live longer, but doing so is strongly correlated to a longer lifespan and lower incidence of disease.  

You don’t even need to have a completed degree to attain the health benefits from college: “An additional year of college decreases mortality rates by 15 to 19 percent by reducing deaths from cancer and heart disease,” Brookings found.

To put this result in a sharper focus, you need to compare it to Americans who didn’t go to college. “High school graduates have a mortality rate that is double those with some college or a college degree,” the study noted.

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This doesn’t mean that college graduates will always outlive high school grads or make more money, nor is it a political comment.

Lurking beneath the data are things like higher associated income from a degree, which often comes from a better job and better health care coverage. Those with graduate degrees, the College Board reports, are consistently on the top of the income ladder over time.

Let’s say you have a job that doesn’t wear down your body as much -- along with more disposable income. Combine that with the likelihood of getting better medical treatment and earlier diagnoses of severe diseases, and you could have a big boost to longevity.

But the story goes beyond that. It could be that those who’ve pursued higher education live in areas with better overall health care or have employers that offer better jobs with decent medical plans.

What jumps out of the Brookings research, though, is a nagging economic argument. If college today is generally too costly and debt-inducing, more people will avoid it and thus indirectly shorten their lives.

“If individual investments in college education are sub-optimal because of credit constraints, externalities, or lack of information, the presence of additional health returns to college strengthens the case for subsidizing education,” the study concluded.

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Translated from academic speak, that means to broadly confer the tremendous health benefits of college,the U.S. needs to financially support degree seekers in a debt-free way and lower the net cost.

Yet how we pay for college largely adds more stress to most students’ lives. We constantly worry about the costs, loans and repaying them over decades. That can’t be good for anyone’s physical or mental health.

At present, the bulk of college financing -- federal loans -- is not financial aid at all but is tilted toward debt. It’s a burden that you’re still stuck with if you’re jobless, underemployed, disabled or retired.

According to the most recent College Board report on college pricing and aid, federal loans account for the largest-single source of college funding: Some $60 billion in 2015. One out of every three dollars used to pay for college comes from these loans.

The large reliance on college debt financing far exceeds other forms of funding. Institutional grants accounted for $43 billion in aid, or only 25 percent of the total; work-study and federal supplemental grants account for $1.5 billion, or just 1 percent.

Increasing nonloan aid has helped over the years. Undergraduate grants have risen 80 percent over the past decade, but not enough to offset even-higher college price tags.

Dropping out: Is college worth the cost? 13:42

College tuition alone over the past decade has been outpacing consumer inflation by 3.5 percent annually. Unless you work for a very generous company or receive substantial bonuses, family income has not kept up with the cost of college. Consumer inflation alone has climbed a total of nearly 20 percent over the last 10 years.

In nominal dollars, a four-year public college cost around $15,000 annually, including all fees, a decade ago. Now the total tab is around $20,000. Private colleges soared from $36,000 to $45,000. And you’ll pay more than $60,000 annually for a top-tier private institution.

That’s why current policy surrounding college financing is unsustainable. It’s time to disrupt the status quo.

Although President-elect Trump says he wants to make college more “affordable,” he has said nothing to date about lowering the actual cost. Instead, he has floated a proposal to cap college loan repayments at 12.5 percent of annual income. That’s more generous than current repayment plans, but it does nothing to reduce overall reliance upon debt financing.

There’s also a hint in the Trump plan to reward “a good faith effort to reduce the cost of college and student debt in exchange for the federal tax breaks and tax dollars.”

How this would work has not been fleshed out. Does it mean Washington would withhold a portion of the $25 billion in annual federal college research dollars if universities don’t lower overall tuition? It’s not clear yet, but the idea of punishing colleges for not cutting their prices has been floated before.

Whatever shape the Trump administration’s higher education policy takes -- remember he also advocated abolishing the entire Department of Education -- there’s still an undeniable link to the public’s well being. The body politic is suffering mightily in places where higher education is difficult to obtain or overpriced.

Providing more Americans with some college education is better overall than making it more burdensome. Whether it involves more generous federal/state grant programs, tax credits, outright elimination of loans or carrot-and-stick approaches to lowering costs, an enlightened higher-education policy all leads to the same goal.

It’s not a flawless strategy, but if higher education leads to higher incomes, better health and longer lives, it’s a road to more widely distributed prosperity -- and that issue certainly reared its ugly head during the election.

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