Education is a Social Determinant of Health

Education is linked with health through three major interrelated pathways:

  • Health knowledge + behaviors
  • Employment and Income
  • Social and Psychological factors

Health Knowledge and Behaviors

Proportion of American adults with “below basic” health literacy among:

  • 3% College graduates
  • 15% High school graduates
  • 45% Adults who have not completed high school

21% of adults with high school diplomas smoke, vs. 5.4% of adults who also have graduate degrees.

More education can lead to higher paying jobs, which enables people to engage in health behaviors through access to:

  • Health care
  • Nutritious foods
  • Safer, healthier homes
  • Neighborhoods with supermarkets
  • Parks and places to exercise

50% of Asian and 31% of non-Hispanic white adults are college graduates, compared with 17% of non-Hispanic Black and 13% of Hispanic and American Indian or Alaska Native adults.

Employment and Income

Every additional year of school leads to an 11% increase in income.

In 2019, the median weekly Rate of unemployment among...

  • $1,256 Bachelors Degree
  • $746 High School Diploma
  • $592 No High School Diploma

Rate of unemployment among...

  • 8% of people ages 25+ lacking high school degrees
  • 2.8% of people ages 25+ with bachelor’s degrees

Median career earnings (based on a 42-year career, in 2014’s dollars) for people who have...

  • High school degree or GED – $.58 million
  • Some college, no degree – $.72 million
  • Associate’s degree – $.86 million
  • Bachelor’s degree – $1.19 million

In the United States overall, nearly 16% of adults ages 25 years and older have not completed high school, 30% have no schooling beyond high school, 27% have attended but not completed college, and 28% are college graduates.

Less educated workers in lower-wage jobs are also less likely to have health-related benefits including:

  • Paid sick/personal leave
  • Workplace wellness programs
  • Child/elder care resources
  • Retirement benefits
  • Employer-sponsor health insurance

Social and Psychological Factors

Social and psychological factors linked with education can influence health through pathways related to:

  • Stress
  • Health-related behaviors
  • Practical & emotional support

Education may influence health by shaping people’s sense of personal control.

31% of Hispanic adults never completed high school, more than double any other racial or ethnic category. Only 26% of Black Americans 25 or older receive a bachelor’s degree or higher, while 40% of non-Hispanic white students and 58% of Asian students do.

Higher levels of education have been observed to foster skills, habits, and attitudes — such as:

  • Problem-solving
  • Purposefulness
  • Self-directedness
  • Perseverance
  • Confidence

Lower levels of education, on the other hand, may lead to experiences that produce:

  • Fatalism
  • Sense of powerlessness
  • Belief that own effort is less powerful than chance or others


Education infographic

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