Here’s some motivation as students head back to campus this fall. For black students, adding degrees to your resume can also add years to your life. According to a study in the August issue of Health Affairs, black women and men with less than 12 years of education are living ten to 14 years less, respectively, than their white counterparts with 16 or more years of education.

For black males in 2008, the life expectancy was age 66 for those without a high school diploma. But a bachelor’s degree or higher can extend their life by ten years. For a black female, the life expectancy goes from age 74 to age 80 for those women with advanced degrees.

“Over the last couple of decades, almost all longevity boats have risen,” said S. Jay Olshansky, professor of epidemiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health and lead author of the study. “But there have been some subgroups that have had a drop in life expectancy.”

In the article, it concluded that blacks with college degrees still lived four to six years less than whites with the same level of education. It went on to state that white males and females outlived black males and females, respectively, at every age and level of education, with the exception of age 60, where black females have a slight longevity advantage over white females.

“There are essentially two Americas,” said Olshansky.

In a positive light, the male and female population of both races are about equal in attaining college education at age 25 in 2008, but the number of white men with 16 or more years of education is double that of black men. The numbers are just as low for females — 30 percent of white females go on to achieve advanced degrees, while only 18 percent of black females do.

The study highlights the beneficial effects of education on health, as it encourages the adoption of healthier lifestyles, a better ability to cope with stress and more effective management of chronic diseases.

Some experts say the racial and educational disparities tied to health are caused by socioeconomic factors.

“Health statuses are affected by income and educational statuses,” said Marilyn Aguirre-Molina, Professor of Public Health at Lehman College – City University of New York Graduate Center and the Founding Director of the CUNY Institute for Health Equity. “Those social determinants are the conditions that keep [negativey] affecting blacks and their poor health.”

According to the United States Census Bureau, only 19 percent of blacks aged 25 and older had a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2009. Yet, the poverty rate among blacks that year was 25.8 percent, up from 24.7 percent in 2008.

In hopes to combat that stigma, President Obama signed an executive order last month following his speech at the National Urban League conference in New Orleans to ensure that federal programs and initiatives administered by the Department of Education and other federal agencies uphold their pledge to assist blacks in achieving a higher education. Some of these objectives include:

  • Reducing the dropout rate of African-American students and increasing the proportion of African-American students who graduate from high school prepared for college and a career
  • Increasing college access, college persistence, and college attainment for African American students
  • Improving the quality of, and expanding access to, adult education, literacy, and career or technical education

While this study and the newly signed initiative are further developments in the approach to encourage more blacks to obtain advanced degrees, some professionals are weary of the final outcome.

“The only thing that makes me a little hesitant is that everyone says in a couple of generations blacks will become upwardly mobile,” says Aguirre-Molina.

“African-Americans have been here for many years, decades and centuries and their situation relative to the length of time they’ve been here should have improved much more greatly than it has. So again, until we begin to address the issues of race, racism and poverty, it’s not going to move as far ahead as we would like. But there is hope.”