A new UNC study may help debunk the traditional rags to riches narrative surrounding upward mobility and its relationship to higher education.
Published in fall 2017, the study, titled "College completion predicts lower depression but higher metabolic syndrome among disadvantaged minorities in young adulthood," was authored by a team led by UNC sociology professor Kathleen Mullan Harris and UNC researcher Lauren Gaydosh.
Its findings show a college education in the United States does not necessarily result in improved well-being — at least, not for all Americans.
Although the study confirmed that while completing college results in improved mental health for all races, this was not the case for physical health.
While college completion additionally results in improved physical health for whites and minorities from advantaged backgrounds, Black and Hispanic Americans coming from economically disadvantaged backgrounds do not see this benefit.
Black and Hispanic Americans from disadvantaged backgrounds that hold college degrees actually have higher incidence of metabolic syndromes like diabetes, heart attacks and strokes compared to similarly disadvantaged peers who did not complete college.
The study speculates the reason for this disparity is that minority students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds face increased stress and hardship to overcome the barriers of their early environments to achieve educational success within discriminatory social structures.
It suggests these upwardly mobile minority students are resilient and psychologically hardy, but when coping with barriers and stressors may deploy strategies that are effective in alleviating mental strife but are harmful for physical health.
“The implications of our findings suggest that policies and programs are needed to help African-American and Hispanic young adults avoid the stresses and social isolation they experience when they move up the social ladder and complete a college degree,” Harris said in an email. “Programs designed to reduce the discrimination they experience, promote their sense of belonging, and encourage development of social networks and social support would help to buffer stress they experience on a daily basis and promote their health and well-being.”
Harvard’s First Generation Student Union was described in the study as a program that could be helpful.
“UNC's Carolina Covenant is another good example of the type of program that could target students at risk of increased physiological stress associated with college attendance,” said Gaydosh in an email. “More research is needed to better understand whether and how such programs can be effective.”
The data used in the study comes from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health), a nationally representative population-based study funded by the National Institute of Health. Add Health has followed a group of adolescent students since 1994 into adulthood, collecting data on their health through periodic interviews.
In addition to being principal investigator of the study, Harris is also the director of Add Health. She said one of the benefits of using this data is, because it is nationally representative, future policy can expect to be effective at solving educational disparities without needing to be customized to a specific location.
“Add Health is an ideal study with which to study health disparities by race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status because it has the true population representation of these groups and thus results based on Add Health relate to everyone in these groups in the national population,” she said.
Gaydosh said the team’s ongoing follow-up to this research will involve following the same group of individuals to determine whether the patterns observed remain, intensify or subside with age. She said the intergenerational health effects of upward mobility is another promising area of future research.
“Our research suggests that expanded access alone may not confer the expected health benefits of college completion for disadvantaged minorities," said Gaydosh. "We need to better understand the college experience of these individuals, and provide support as they access and complete college.”
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