American adults without a college degree have experienced greater reductions in life expectancy when compared to their more-educated counterparts, according to a study by USC and Princeton released Monday.

The study reveals that after nearly a century of declining mortality up to the late 1990s, the progress continued into the 21st century for more-educated Americans but stalled for the population as a whole and reversed for the two-thirds of Americans who do not have a college degree.

The study, which appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examined overall mortality in the United States using records spanning from 1990 to 2018. Assuming that mortality rates at each age remained constant at their level in each year, the researchers then calculated how long a 25-year-old could expect to live up until the age of 75.

The age range (25-75 years old) coincides with increasing “deaths of despair” in the United States from the opioid epidemic, alcohol and suicide, as well as a slowing of progress on deaths from cardiovascular disease.

Study authors Anne Case and Sir Angus Deaton, who have previously documented the toll of deaths of despair on Americans, said their latest findings demonstrated the increasing influence of educational attainment on a person’s health and economic security in the U.S.

“The United States has this increasingly sharp societal division between people who have a college degree and those who don’t,” said Deaton, Presidential Professor of Economics at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the Dwight D. Eisenhower Professor of International Affairs, Emeritus, at Princeton.

“If you don’t have a four-year degree, not only have your wages been falling for 50 years but our study shows your adult life expectancy is also decreasing,” Deaton said.

The researchers found that although the adult life expectancy gap widened between those with and without a college degree, it narrowed based on race. By 2018, the adult life expectancy of Black Americans with a bachelor’s degree — who in the past had a lower adult life expectancy than whites without a degree — was closer to whites with a college degree than to Black Americans without a degree. This is in stark contrast with the larger racial divides of the 1990s.

“America is the richest large country in the world, with frontier medical technology, yet we still see large declines for Americans without a four-year degree, even prior to the arrival of COVID-19,” said Case, the Alexander Stewart 1886 Professor of Economics and Public Affairs, Emeritus, at Princeton University. “Without a four-year college diploma, it is increasingly difficult to build a meaningful and successful life in the United States.”

The study was based on death certificates in the National Vital Statistical System, which includes records of 48.9 million deaths of people aged 25 to 84 between 1990 and 2018 — before the COVID-19 pandemic. The data indicate age, sex, race, ethnicity, education and year of death.

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