This graduation season, Evelyn completed high school with countless other students across the county, but her graduation was even more cause for celebration. At age 55, Evelyn was among 200 adult students in Ohio who were able to return to school and receive a state-issued diploma, proving that it’s never too late to attain education.
In the United States, 12% of adults are missing a high school diploma. While it may be easy to relegate this group to education bureaus, the matter of education, or lack thereof, has profound links to individual and collective health.
A number of studies have shown that highly educated people are healthier and live longer than those with less education. Even as overall mortality rates have dropped, those among the most educated and least educated have trended in opposite directions. These early deaths can be attributed to higher rates of disease and poor health. Less educated people are more likely to engage in dangerous health behaviors like smoking or skipping exercise. And, the prevalence of diabetes among those without a high school education is double the rate among college graduates.
As a social determinant of health, education plays a major role in many areas of life that contribute to health. Lower education leads to lower paying jobs that are not likely to provide full health insurance benefits. One quarter of households making less than $25,000 each year are uninsured, compared with 8% of households bringing in $75,000 or more annually.
Lower income also impacts the kinds of food people can afford and the kinds of neighborhoods they live in. Poor neighborhoods may not have easy access to healthy food or safe, green spaces for physical activity. Low-income neighborhoods also tend to have worse public schools, contributing even further to the education issue.
As most schools across the country cap public education for people around their mid-20s, other agencies and organizations have stepped up to fill the need. That’s how Evelyn got her diploma. Her program, Ohio’s 22+ Adult High School Diploma Program, is free to adults who are older than 22, living in Ohio and do not have a diploma or a GED. Through the program, counselors work with each person to develop individual plans to identify the courses and assessments needed to earn a diploma.
Other states may catch on to Ohio’s model, but in their absence, nonprofits have filled the gap. GoodWill, true to their name, has created the GoodWill Excel Center in Texas. The center is state-recognized charter school to give adults aged 26-50 the opportunity to earn their high school diploma. Recognizing that education is more than just hard skills, the center provides each student with a life coach that helps them develop five-year plans, job hunt, and even keeps up with them two years after they graduate. The program has been so successful that it has expanded to states like Arkansas, working with each community to tailor the program to its needs.
With models like those in Ohio and at nonprofits like GoodWill, we can give adults without education a second chance to improve their quality of life and health. As John Dewey said, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”