Student Achievement

Inoculations Boost High School Graduation Rates, Study Finds

By Sarah D. Sparks — January 07, 2013 2 min read
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San Diego, Calif.

Ensuring students get their booster shots can help protect not just later health, but their educational achievement, too, according to a new University of Missouri-Columbia study released at the American Economic Association’s annual conference here this weekend.

The Impact of Childhood Health on Adult Educational Attainment” tracks the effects of state vaccination requirements for common childhood diseases including measles, diphtheria, pertussis (also known as whooping cough, and tetanus, using data from the Centers for Disease Control’s national disease surveillance system.

Dara N. Lee, an assistant economics professor at Missouri, analyzed both child mortality and health rates and years of schooling for students from the 1960s through the early 1980s, before and after states began to require proof of immunization for students before starting school. Without school requirements, she found, “parents tend to have their children vaccinated only during epidemics, by which time the children may already have been exposed to the disease.”

“It seems like these mandatory vaccination laws were very effective in lowering morbidity for these childhood diseases; for example, there was almost a 50 percent drop for measles,” Lee said. By contrast, diseases that were not included in those initial vaccination laws, such as hepatitis and chicken pox, saw no significant decrease during the same time.

The most common childhood illnesses for which children are vaccinated, including measles, mumps, rubella, and pertussis, each keep a child out of school on average three weeks without any other complications. But complications are common in all of them; in measles, for example, one in 10 patients develop ear infections that can lead to permanent hearing loss.

Lee found that mandatory vaccination laws increased students’ likelihood of graduating high school by 1.9 percentage points, and increased the average educational attainment by .12 years. “The interesting thing is the effect on nonwhites is twice as large,” Lee said, even after controlling for the effects of desegregating schools, which in many states was happening around the same time.

While considered a universal public health success in reducing child mortality, immunizations have faced a highly publicized backlash from a small-but-vocal minority who believe, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that they may cause autism.

“There’s some significant implications from a policy perspective,” Lee said. “Given the current controversy in the United States, in which a lot of people are arguing that vaccinations are bad for your children and can give them autism, we show that on average, it’s not true and these kids are going to be getting more education than their counterparts.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.