Poorer scholars gain on pay but risk their health

April 10, 2008

While non-traditional students see improved salaries as a result of attending university, they also increase their risk of mental illness later in life, research by the Institute of Education has found.

Leon Feinstein and Anna Vignoles used data from the UK 1970 birth cohort to assess the variation in benefits and risks of higher education participation by family background. For students who attend university "against the odds", university attendance was associated with "substantial reductions in the likelihood of economic disadvantage", the pair found.

The economic benefit effect was greater for this group of students than for those whose background meant that university attendance was likely.

However, those from disadvantaged backgrounds - especially women - were at a much greater risk of mental-health problems after graduation than people from the same background who did not attend university, the study suggested.

The mental health of people coming from backgrounds where university attendance was likely either improved over time or showed no change as a result of participation in higher education.

Among women from disadvantaged backgrounds, the probability of depression at age 30 was 20 per cent for those who did not graduate and 44 per cent for those who did.

In contrast, among women from advantaged backgrounds the rates of depression were 22 per cent for those who did not graduate and 23 per cent for those who did.

Writing in a recent paper published in Journal of Social Issues, Professor Feinstein and Dr Vignoles said that those from poorer backgrounds would have to weigh the economic benefits of higher education against the mental-health risks. "The 'psychic costs' for this group seem large indeed," they conclude in their paper, "Issues on individual differences in the pathways into and beyond higher education in the UK".

Dr Vignoles suggested that an increased risk of depression might be connected to unrealistic expectations about the benefits of a university education. "If you are coming from a family where most people have gone to university your expectations might be more realistic."

She added: "In our work we have noted time and time again that there doesn't seem to be a relationship between higher education and life satisfaction."

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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