Like all parents of teenagers, I worry that my children will engage in risky behavior, including drinking, smoking and drug use. The more time they spend doing healthier extracurricular activities — soccer, piano, cleaning their rooms (ha!) — the better.
But it turns out that what they do in school can also affect their choices outside the classroom.
Between 1993 and 2013, 40 states and the District of Columbia increased graduation requirements: a specified number of courses in each subject necessary for a high school diploma. The increases have been most common in mathematics and science, and may partly explain the growth in college majors in STEM fields. In 1993, states required between two and six math and science courses for high school graduation. By 2014, the range was four to eight.
A paper in the American Journal of Health Economics suggests a connection: Some of the reduction in risky behavior by teenagers is driven by greater academic demands at school.
Zhuang Hao, an economics Ph.D. candidate, and the economist Benjamin Cowan, both at Washington State University, examined the number of math and science courses that states required for a high school diploma and the relationship to risky behavior among high school students. Their data spanned the years 1993 to 2011 and included over 100,000 students across 47 states.
According to the study, these increases in state math and science high school graduation requirements reduced alcohol consumption without any offsetting increase in marijuana or cigarette use. More demanding academic standards decreased the number of days teenagers drank as well as the rate at which they engaged in binge drinking (defined as more than five drinks at a time). For each additional math or science course required of high school students, the probability they drank or binge drank fell 1.6 percent. The results are a bit larger for males and for nonwhite students.
Approaches like lengthening the school year may deter students from a broader set of risky behavior while preparing them for higher-wage jobs.
Rates of alcohol, drug, and tobacco use among teenagers are high enough to provoke concern among their parents. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one-third of high schoolers consumed alcohol in the last month, and 18 percent had five or more drinks when they did so. One in five had used marijuana in the past month, and more than 5 percent had used cocaine or hallucinogenic drugs. Just over 10 percent of high schoolers smoke cigarettes.
Nevertheless, by some measures, teenagers are engaging in less risky behavior than they used to. Their rates of alcohol and cigarette use have trended downward since the early 1990s, though use of other drugs is up.
Reducing risky behavior early in life is important because habits established in youth often persist into adulthood. Deterring those behaviors early has long-term benefits. A clever body of work takes advantage of school choice lotteries, in which families who win the lottery can place their children in their preferred — typically higher-quality — school. For example, one study of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district found that lottery-winning middle school and high school enrollees entered higher-quality schools and committed less crime seven years later.
There are other ways the education system can help children be and stay healthy. There are many evidence-based programs that schools can use to directly address the factors that drive or deter substance use. One study found that higher teacher wages are associated with lower mortality. A study of Southern states found that decreasing student-teacher ratios, increasing teachers’ wages, and lengthening the school year are all associated with better future health of students, including reduced smoking, obesity and mortality.
These aren’t the only ways to deter risky behavior by teenagers. Increasing taxes on alcohol and tobacco products also has that effect. But more rigorous demands at school — as well as approaches like lengthening the school year — may deter students from a broader set of risky behavior while better preparing them for higher-wage jobs, things that taxes alone cannot do.