Teens in neighborhoods with high educational opportunity live longer

January 21, 2020

A teenager’s life expectancy is heavily impacted by the neighborhood they live in; for example, while a teenager in a neighborhood with the highest life expectancy could expect to live to age 91 in 2015, teenagers in neighborhoods with the lowest life expectancy could expect to live to 70.

New research from Child Trends examines the relationship between educational opportunity and teen life expectancy. Teens in neighborhoods with high levels of educational opportunity can expect to live nine months longer than their peers in neighborhoods with low levels of educational opportunity. Mapping the Link Between Educational Opportunity and Life Expectancy compares high school educational opportunity and life expectancy estimates for teenagers in every census tract in the country to help policymakers understand ways they can address the life expectancy gap.

“While research has found that people with more education live longer lives, it’s difficult for policymakers to take direct action to improve their constituents’ educational attainment,” said Renee Ryberg, an expert on education and adolescent development at Child Trends. “Because educational opportunity sets the stage for education attainment, understanding the connection between life expectancy and educational opportunity will help policymakers understand how to improve the health and extend the lives of teenagers across the country.”

Child Trends researchers measured a neighborhood’s educational opportunity by examining the following conditions within the nearest high school(s): access to rigorous academics, including the availability of AP courses and dual enrollment programs that let students gain college credit; supportive conditions for learning, including levels of chronic absenteeism and out-of-school suspension; availability of nonacademic supports, including school counselors, nurses, and psychologists; and teacher experience. Researchers confirmed that neighborhoods with more educational opportunity, measured using these domains, had higher graduation rates.

Researchers compared educational opportunity to life expectancy data from the U.S. Small-Area Life Expectancy Project and found that educational opportunity explains a small, but meaningful part of the difference in life expectancy between neighborhoods: 6 percent. A neighborhood’s life expectancy is also related to larger, systemic inequities faced by its residents on the basis of their race, ethnicity, and income.

“Gaps in educational opportunity represent a meaningful challenge policymakers can tackle to improve the lives of youth,” said Kristen Harper, an expert on school discipline and education policy at Child Trends. “We hope education and health decision makers will use this tool to improve educational opportunity in their backyard and how it can benefit teens.”

To improve teen life expectancy, education and health officials at the state and local levels should collaborate to identify communities with low educational opportunity and enact reforms to improve practice and bolster access to staff and resources. Policymakers must also understand that, for many communities, short life expectancy and low educational opportunity are often coexisting disadvantages rooted in long-standing systems of inequity, such as past school and housing segregation policies. As policymakers work to address these longstanding inequities, they can use this tool to examine how improving educational opportunity in their neighborhoods may positively influence the health of children and youth.

This project is based upon work supported by the Urban Institute through funds provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The findings and conclusions presented in this report are those of the authors alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Urban Institute or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.