Disadvantaged Minorities Miss Health Benefits Of College, Finds UNC Study

Jan 1, 2018

UNC-Chapel Hill's Lauren Gaydosh studied the physical health effects of minorities from disadvantaged backgrounds who complete college.
Credit UNC-Chapel Hill

Upwardly mobile minorities enjoy improved mental health, but the daily stresses they face take a toll physically, according to new research from UNC-Chapel Hill.

The study looked at black and Hispanic young adults from disadvantaged childhoods. It documented improved mental health, but worse physical health risk associated with college completion.

"We found upwardly mobile minorities are psychologically hardy, which may partly explain how they are able to persevere in the face of significant adversity," said Lauren Gaydosh, who co-led the study. "But the constant effort needed to overcome obstacles blocking their opportunity – such as discrimination and isolation – is stressful, and takes a toll on their physical health."

This is the first research to document mental health benefits but physical health declines, according to UNC. It drew data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health), the largest, most comprehensive longitudinal study of adolescents ever undertaken.

Kathleen Mullan Harris, UNC-Chapel Hill Professor and faculty fellow at UNC’s Carolina Population Center (CPC) studied the physical health effects of minorities from disadvantaged backgrounds who complete college.
Credit UNC-Chapel Hill

To simplify the research, the study's co-authors present an example of two individuals raised in severely disadvantaged backgrounds; one completes college and the other does not. The statistical analyses predict that if these two individuals are white, the college graduate is 3 percentage points less likely to have metabolic syndrome than the non-graduate. However, if the two individuals are black or Hispanic, the pattern is reversed; the black college graduate is roughly 9 percentage points more likely to have metabolic syndrome than his/her less educated peer.

Senior author Kathleen Mullan Harris, a professor and faculty fellow at UNC’s Carolina Population Center (CPC), emphasized that the findings should not be misunderstood as suggesting minorities from disadvantaged backgrounds should avoid college. Instead, she hoped the research could one day lead to better public policy.

"We need to work on programs and policies that try to remove these barriers and remove these stresses," she said. "Make it less stressful for minorities to move up the social ladder."

In addition, Gaydosh and Harris point out that their study looked only at health effects in young adulthood. More research is needed to determine if those reverse as the group of more highly educated minorities from disadvantaged backgrounds grow older.

"It remains to be seen whether as they age, they can start to accrue some of the physical health benefits of higher education," said Gaydosh.