Oct 16, 2023 - Health

Life expectancy gap in America widens depending on college education

Data: Brookings Institute; Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Princeton University; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Brookings Institute; Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Princeton University; Chart: Axios Visuals

The U.S. is failing less-educated people given the dismal life expectancy prospects they face compared to their more educated peers, researchers said.

Why it matters: While the U.S. economy outperforms other countries by metrics such as economic growth and inflation rates, two prominent economists argue the life expectancy gap says otherwise.

  • "The United States is failing its less-educated people, an awful condemnation of where the country is today," Princeton University economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton wrote in a opinion piece for the New York Times this month.
  • Americans without college degrees are currently living about nine fewer years than people with higher education experience, their research found.

By the numbers: In 2021, the life expectancy for people without a Bachelor's degree was about 75, compared to 83 for those with degrees, according to the research.

  • A decade prior, it was nearly 78 and 84, respectively.
  • About 20 years ago, the gap was significantly more narrow, with a life expectancy of about 77 for people without degrees and 79 for those with.

Zoom out: Life expectancy in the U.S. overall fell for two years consecutively in 2020 and 2021 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and opioid crisis.

  • Before the pandemic, the U.S. ranked 40th in life expectancy compared to other countries. It dropped to 46th in 2020.

Reality check: About 24% of Americans have a bachelor's degree as their highest education.

"GDP may be doing great, but people are dying in increasing numbers, especially less-educated people," Case told the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit research organization.

  • "A lot of the increasing prosperity is going to the well-educated elites. It is not going to typical working people."
  • fThe researchers point to low unemployment rates, growing gross domestic product and falling inflation as measures of the U.S. economy's strength, compared to the life expectancy disparity.

Details: The economists split the timeframe from 1992 to 2021 by three, noting that mortality rose rapidly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • 1992 to 2010: Mortality fell for both groups with greater improvements for more educated people.
  • 2010 to 2019: Mortality fell for people with a bachelor's and rose for those without.
  • 2019 to 2021: Mortality rose for both groups, more rapidly for people without a degree.

Go deeper: U.S. life expectancy fell again in 2021 amid pandemic, opioid crisis

Go deeper