Schooling, skills, and self-rated health: A test of conventional wisdom on the relationship between educational attainment and health

Number: 87
Year: 2016
Author(s): Naomi Duke, Ross Macmillan
Education is a key sociological variable in the explanation of health and health disparities. Conventional wisdom emphasizes a life course-human capital perspective with expectations of causal effects that are quasi-linear, large in magnitude for high levels of educational attainment, and reasonably robust in the face of measured and unmeasured explanatory factors. In this paper, we challenge this wisdom by offering an alternative theoretical account and an empirical investigation organized around the role of measured and unmeasured cognitive and non-cognitive skills as confounders in the association between educational attainment and health. Based on longitudinal data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth – 1997 spanning mid adolescence through early adulthood, results indicate that a) effects of educational attainment are very vulnerable to issues of omitted variable bias; b) that measured indicators of cognitive and non-cognitive skills account for a significant proportion of the traditionally observed effect of educational attainment; c) that such skills have effects larger than that of even the highest levels of educational attainment when appropriate controls for unmeasured heterogeneity are incorporated; and d) that models that most stringently control for such time-stable abilities show little evidence of a substantive association between educational attainment and health. Implications for theory and research are discussed.

Naomi Duke
Departments of Sociology and Pediatrics, University of Minnesota


Ross Macmillan
Department of Policy Analysis and Public Management and Dondena Centre for Research on Social Dynamics and Public Policy, Università Bocconi


Language: English


The paper may be downloaded here.


Keywords: Education,health,life-course epidemiology,cognitive and non-cognitive skills,causality.