The lifespan of the average American depends on many things, but one is becoming increasingly out of reach for many: college education.

According to a recent study by renowned Princeton University economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, the life expectancy of Americans without a bachelor’s degree has plunged to 74.8 years from 78 years a decade ago.

Americans with a bachelor’s degree can expect to live past 83, according to the authors.

While average life expectancy declined across the board during Covid, the drop was more severe for non-college grads.

Before the pandemic, the life expectancy of non-college grads barely rose over two decades. It rose by more than five years for college grads over the same period.

Like almost everything else, economics plays a huge role in life expectancy and the quality of years lived.

The economics of the education divide

The research findings are alarming because nearly two-thirds of American adults do not have college degrees.

According to Case and Deaton, this demographic has “become increasingly excluded from good jobs, political power, and social esteem.”

It’s not difficult to see why.

According to the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU), an organization of public research universities, Americans with a bachelor’s degree earn $36,000 more per year than high school grads.

They can expect to earn $1.2 million more over their lifetime.

“The evidence that a college degree significantly improves one’s employment prospects and earnings potential is overwhelming,” the APLU wrote. “Bachelor’s degree holders are half as likely to be unemployed as their peers who only have a high school degree.”

Higher incomes typically mean greater access to healthcare, better nutrition options, and safer living environments. High-income earners are also far less likely to suffer from “deaths of despair” involving suicide or drug overdose.

Education, but at what cost?

College might be key to future success, but it’s getting awfully expensive, especially for students from less-privileged backgrounds.

According to the Education Data Initiative, the average federal student loan borrower owes $37,338—a figure that jumps to $54,921 for students attending more prestigious private schools.

College tuition rates have more than doubled over the past 20 years. Reputable studies from Georgetown University and the National Center for Education Statistics show that the cost of college attendance has shot up between 169%-180% between 1980-2020.

With interest rates on federal student loans ranging from 5.5%-8%, economic hardship could befall millions of Americans following the resumption of student loan payments this month.

While estimates vary, a Wall Street Journal study shows that average monthly student loan payments range between $200-$300, or 5% of the median U.S. salary.