Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2015

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Stefanie Mollborn

Second Advisor

Fred Pampel

Third Advisor

Richard G. Rogers

Fourth Advisor

Liam Downey

Fifth Advisor

Fernando Riosmena


Among U.S. adults, college degree earners live much healthier lives than those with less education, but we know little about why. This dissertation examines how, why, and for whom college degrees influence health behaviors, such as smoking, diet, exercising, maintaining of healthy weight status, and drinking. Theories posit that college degrees may exhibit: “transformative” effects if college degrees influence health behaviors independent of selection, “sorting” effects if health behavior advantages are due to selection, “conditional reproduction” if groups of historical advantage receive the greatest benefits, or “conditional equalizing” if groups of historical disadvantage have greater benefits. Three research questions characterize the study’s objectives: (1) Does education improve health behaviors or is the association spurious? (2) Does education have the same benefits for the health behaviors of all social groups? (3) If education does improve health behaviors, how does it do so? The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health) provides longitudinal data on education and health behaviors across adolescence and young adulthood for a cohort of individuals born 1977-1984. The methods include propensity score approaches to estimate causal effects and test for heterogeneity. This study affirms multiple functions of education: it sorts individuals, improves well-being, and stratifies the population into classes. Very little evidence supports the assertion that benefits of college degrees are conditional. College degrees improve health behaviors for all college graduates, leaving those without degrees lagging behind. A sociological understanding of why social groups engage in different behaviors can contribute to efforts in reducing social inequality and improving population health.