College might be a ticket out of poverty, but for blacks and Hispanics making the climb, it might not be a ticket to good physical health, UNC-Chapel Hill researchers say.
In fact, yardsticks like blood pressure and blood chemistry indicate students who start from “higher levels of disadvantage” may “actually experience a cost” to their future health from the stress surrounding the experience, a team led by post-doc Lauren Gaydosh and sociology professor Kathleen Mullan Harris said in a recent research paper.
The pattern, observed in a multi-decade study that began tracking 20,745 people who were teens in the 1990s, is notable because “we didn’t find any evidence that this is restricted to any one region of the country or to rural or urban parts of the country,” Gaydosh said. “This is not a rural phenomenon, or a Southern one.”
The next step, she and Harris added, is to see if there’s some deeper factor involving the colleges themselves that might contribute to the pattern.
That includes a look for differences in health indicators among the alumni of “majority minority” schools and historically white ones, and at whether a school’s prestige or financial aid offerings line up with them in any way, Gaydosh said.
She and Harris also want to incorporating into their work some of the economic data a team led by Stanford University professor Raj Chetty has used to gauge how well different colleges and universities do in promoting upward mobility.
Design-wise, their research put to the test the suspicion that the benefits of the college experience accrue differently for minorities from low-income or unstable homes than for whiter or more well-to-do students do.
Prior research seemed to back that up, but for focusing on small groups and particular places like rural Georgia left room to wonder how widespread the pattern is.
Harris and other UNC researchers are well-placed to address that, as they manage “Add Health,” also known as the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health. The project dates from 1994 and includes data from questionnaires, interviews and biological samples. Participants have gone through four rounds of questioning over the years, most recently in 2008. A fifth round is due soon.
Federal agencies including the National Institutes of Health have backed the creation of Add Health database, along with some private foundations. All told, it’s consumed about $150 million and spawned about 6,000 research reports of varying types and subjects.
To get at the health-effects question, Gaydosh, Harris and some collaborators from two other universities compared responses to the original, 1994-95 surveys and the 2008 ones. Ultimately, that meant looking at about 11,000 people, crafting measures to size up their mental and physical health. By 2008 participants would’ve been in their mid-to-late 20s, with some already in their early 30s.
Once the number-crunching was done, it was clear that college graduates tend to do better than non-graduates on the mental health front, and likewise are physically healthier.
But after considering their original circumstances, a different pattern emerged. Graduates still tended to do well on the mental-health measures across the board, but the blacks and Hispanics who’d had the toughest starts in life tended to have the telltale signs that hint at future physical problems.
The researchers speculate that while they’re “psychologically hardy,” they still have to deal with discrimination, social isolation, a lack of support and the fear “their achieved position is tenuous.” They cope, but the stress works “a wear and tear on bodily systems from hard-driving effort.”
That’s worrisome because latter-life health problems can cancel out some or all of the prospective economic benefits of upward mobility, “stunting [the] potential for reducing inequality within and across generations,” Gaydosh and her colleagues said.
In the paper, they were quick to add that they think it’d be a mistake to conclude that “upward mobility is bad for your health.” The finding underscores the need to make “it more common and less stressful,” for instance via the special aid and counseling programs universities like UNC-CH have established for first-generation college students.