THE BLOG
10/15/2015 10:46 am ET Updated Oct 15, 2016

Want to Be Happier and Healthier? Then Go to College.

There's a lot of debate right now about the value of higher education and the costs associated with going to college. Central to the discussion are legitimate concerns about affordability and what students actually know and are able to do with the degrees they receive.

Despite these concerns, ample data - including a recent Gallup-Purdue survey of college alumni - show the benefit college brings in terms of earnings potential and access to quality jobs.

And a new study from the University of Maine adds fuel to the already compelling case for college with this finding: Citizens with postsecondary credentials not only contribute to the economic prosperity of communities; they also live happier, healthier lives.

The study, It's Not Just the Money, authored by Professor Phillip Trostel, finds that college graduates report having "good" or "very good" health 44 percent more than their non-graduate peers do. Further, college graduates are nearly four times less likely than high school graduates to smoke, and are significantly more likely to exercise, wear a seat belt, maintain a healthy weight and regularly see a doctor. Not surprisingly, then, college graduates have a life expectancy of seven years longer than those who hold a high school diploma or less.

College graduates are nearly five times less likely to be jailed or imprisoned than those who have no college experience, according to the report. And graduates utilize about 39 percent fewer government resources, such as emergency assistance and jails, and contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars more over a lifetime in local, state and federal taxes.

What's more, college graduates are the engines of civic movement. They volunteer at a rate 2.3 times higher than those with a high school diploma or less, contribute more than three times as much to charity, and vote and participate in politics at a significantly higher level. Graduates also have stronger participation in community organizations-- schools, service and religious organizations. The culminating effect is stronger, safer neighborhoods. And yes, college graduates are far more likely to report being happy.

The new study adds to a growing body of evidence laying out the case for college. But much of what has been written about the outcomes of higher education to date relates to the economic benefits of high- quality postsecondary learning--the higher wages, employment levels and good jobs that are highly correlated with postsecondary credentials.

The Gallup-Purdue Index, for example, underscores this point with deep analysis of what alumni see as the educational experiences that are associated with having a good job and that lead to workplace success.

Personal well-being and happiness factors -while much less studied than the economic benefits - provide an equally compelling argument for college. Consider that the presence of people with postsecondary credentials translates into stronger, more engaged, communities. That's critical because communities, now more than ever, are the linchpin in our country's future. They are home to two-thirds (and growing) of the nation's population, and drive more than three-quarters of the nation's economy.

Though the case for college is growing stronger, a disturbing reality remains: college is not within reach for all Americans, especially low-income and minority populations. Millions are deprived of the financial and lifestyle benefits bestowed by college, and their communities miss out on the advantages of having a population with high postsecondary attainment rates. That's why shrinking our nation's talent deficit and preparing individuals to meet employer demands is so critically important today.

How do we work together to increase the number of Americans that hold a quality postsecondary credential? One strategy is to work with communities to create a national movement from the ground up.

Cities like Greensboro, N.C., Fort Wayne, Ind., and Dallas, Texas, are working to integrate the city's various postsecondary, business and government resources to find efficient ways of addressing the talent deficit. These examples, and many others, illustrate the idea that these communities are increasingly talent hubs--places where commerce and creativity thrive in ways that impact both social and economic well-being. The work in these cities shows that when diverse partners collaborate to increase postsecondary attainment, they can spark large-scale change.

Higher education attainment isn't just about the money--it's about the people, and opening up the worlds of opportunity that only education can provide. It is about enriching lives and communities, reducing crime, increasing engagement, and feeding the economy with the talent it desperately needs.

Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation, a national foundation dedicated to increasing Americans' college attainment, and author of "America Needs Talent: Attracting, Educating & Deploying the 21st-Century Workforce."