Heterogeneity in Educational Pathways and the Health Behavior of U.S. Young Adults

  • Katrina M. Walsemann
  • Robert A. Hummer
  • Mark D. Hayward
Original Research


An increasing number of U.S. adults are progressing through college in decidedly more complex ways. Little is known, however, about how this growing heterogeneity may be associated with the health behaviors and ultimately health of young adults. Using a life course perspective, we investigate whether and why different educational pathways—that is, variation in when people attend and complete school—are associated with daily smoking and binge drinking among U.S. young adults. We use 14 waves (1997–2011) of data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 cohort (n = 7359) that enable us to identify the most common educational pathways, as well as their association with young adult health behaviors. Bachelor’s degree recipients who enrolled immediately after high school but did not attain their degree within 4 years were more likely to smoke daily in early adulthood (i.e., ages 26–32) than those who enrolled in college immediately after high school and attained a bachelor’s degree within 4 years. Conversely, bachelor’s degree recipients who delayed college enrollment were less likely to binge drink in early adulthood than individuals who enrolled in college immediately after high school and attained a bachelor’s degree within 4 years. Marital status and household income in young adulthood accounted for some of the relationships between educational pathways and health behavior. These findings highlight the complexity of education’s relationship to health behavior and strongly suggest that heterogeneity in educational pathways should be explicitly examined in population health research.


Smoking Binge drinking Timing College Non-traditional student Life course Non-normative 



Funding was provided by National Institute on Aging (Grant No. R24AG045061), American Cancer Society (Grant No. IRG13-043-01), and Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (Grant Nos. R24HD042849 and P2C HD050924).


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Katrina M. Walsemann
    • 1
  • Robert A. Hummer
    • 2
  • Mark D. Hayward
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Health Promotion, Education, and BehaviorUniversity of South CarolinaColumbiaUSA
  2. 2.Carolina Population CenterUniversity of North CarolinaChapel HillUSA
  3. 3.Population Research CenterUniversity of TexasAustinUSA

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