Beyond Education Gradient: College Major and Health Risk Behaviors

Wei-Lin Chen , National Sun Yat-sen University
Jen-Hao Chen, Rutgers University

Numerous studies have documented education gradient in health. Individuals with college education show better health behaviors and health status than those with lower levels of education. However, relatively few studies consider the potential heterogeneity of the effects, particularly at the college education level. Given that heterogeneity of curriculum and learning activities across majors in higher education by design, does all college education, regardless of the field of study, lead to the same health benefits? This study analyzed 1,033 individuals from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 97 who obtained a bachelor’s degree from 2001 to 2011 to examine the associations between college major and engagement in three health risk behaviors during the college years: smoking, binge drinking, and marijuana use. Results from longitudinal analyses showed that respondents who majored in business were more likely to smoke, binge drink frequently, and use marijuana than respondents who majored in STEM. Business majors were also more likely to smoke than health sciences majors, binge drink more frequently than arts & humanities majors, and more likely to use marijuana than education majors. Gaps could not be explained by demographic characteristics, family SES background, and employment experience. This study demonstrated substantial heterogeneity in smoking, binge drinking, and marijuana use among individuals with college education by major. Findings imply that not all college majors lead to equally healthy lifestyles. Different majors not only provide different curriculum but also offer different social contexts which can have different health consequences. Implications for policy and theory are discussed.

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 Presented in Session 94. Educational and SES Differences in Health and Wellbeing Over the Lifecourse