Accounting for the Widening Mortality Gap between American Adults with and without a BA
28 September 2023
We examine mortality differences between Americans adults with and without a four-year college degree over the period 1992 to 2021. Mortality patterns, in aggregate and across groups, can provide evidence on how well society is functioning, information that goes beyond aggregate measures of material wellbeing. From 1992 to 2010, both educational groups saw falling mortality, but with greater improvements for the more educated; from 2010 to 2019, mortality continued to fall for those with a BA while rising for those without; during the COVID pandemic, mortality rose for both groups, but markedly more rapidly for the less educated. In consequence, the mortality gap between the two groups expanded in all three periods, leading to an 8.5-year difference in adult life expectancy by the end of 2021. There have been dramatic changes in patterns of mortality since 1992, but gaps rose consistently in each of thirteen broad classifications of cause of death. We document rising gaps in other wellbeing-relevant measures, background factors to the rising gap in mortality, including morbidity, social isolation, marriage, family income, and wealth. This is the conference version of the paper prepared for the Fall 2023 Brookings Papers on Economic Activity (BPEA) conference. The final version of this paper will be published in the Fall 2023 BPEA issue. This is an extended and revised version of NBER Working Paper 31236, May 2023.