Community Colleges and Adult Health

Project Summary

The project team is identifying the causal effect of college enrollment and attainment on health by examining how community college access modifies risky health behaviors and outcomes later in adulthood. In order to identify the causal effect of college enrollment on health behaviors, the investigators are evaluating the differential opening of new colleges and universities by state over the time period 1960-1995.

Research Question(s)

  • Does community college access, measured by the number of public 2-year institutions per capita in state of birth, raise college attainment?
  • Does the additional education attained from increased community college access affect health behaviors and outcomes in adulthood, such as smoking, heavy drinking, exercise, and self-reported health?
  • Do any health benefits of additional college attainment from increased community college availability differ significantly by gender, race, or socioeconomic background?


  • Inform community college policy and funding decisions by demonstrating the health and other benefits, if any, of increased access and reduced barriers to community college courses and programs.


Researchers found that public 2-year colleges per capita at the time an individual was 17 years old has a significant effect on their schooling and, for some groups, adult earnings and employment. Their estimates imply substantial market returns to higher education, which is consistent with many papers in the returns-to-schooling literature. Furthermore, using NHIS data, they found that public 2-year access improves the health behaviors and outcomes later in adulthood—it reduces the likelihood of smoking, increases exercise frequency, and is associated with better self-reported health.


Health & well-being: risky health behaviors and outcomes including smoking, heavy drinking, exercise, obesity status, self-reported health, and disease incidence

Other: measures of college attainment (including some college completion, Associate’s and Bachelor’s degrees) employment status


The research team is estimating a regression relating educational outcomes to measures of college access. The collection of state-by-year and cohort indicator variables is included in the model so that estimates of the effects of college access on attainment represent “differences in differences” in educational attainment over birth state and cohort.

Young college students in lecture
Grantee and Partner organizations

Washington State University, School of Economic Sciences
Bates College

Grant status
In Progress
Principal investigators
Benjamin Cowan, PhD
Nathan Tefft, PhD
Start date
Award amount
24 months

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