Can Greater Academic Demands Lead to Less Risky Behavior in Teenagers?

By Brenda Iasevoli — June 01, 2018 2 min read
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Beefing up high school graduation requirements in math and science could curb youth drinking, with no uptick in cigarette or marijuana use, a new study suggests.

For each additional math or science course that high school students were required to take, researchers found, the probability that students drank or binge drank (more than five drinks in a sitting) decreased by 1.6 percent. This report describes how teens’ use of drugs and alcohol continues to decline, dropping in 2016 to the lowest rates since the 1990s.

Why does a rigorous curriculum result in students drinking less? “We speculate that the reason has to do with the change in the way students use their time,” economist Ben Cowan told Education Week. “They have to focus on school work and have less time to engage in risky behavior.” Cowan co-authored the study, which is forthcoming in the Journal of Health Economics, with Zhuang Hao, an economics Ph.D. candidate. They are both at Washington State University.

Another reason for the decrease in drinking, suggests Cowan, is that students who are taking more math and science courses see a future rich with possibilities. They may see themselves getting a job in a STEM field and earning a good salary. A view toward the future might provide the deterrence to drinking.

The populations most affected by the more stringent high school grad requirements were males and students of color. Cowan said most states boosted graduation requirements in the 1990s and later, especially in math and science, and he speculates that nonwhite students by and large attended the schools that increased requirements. White students likely already attended schools with above average requirements.

In conducting their study, the researchers accounted for the tendency of students who engage in risky behaviors to drop out when graduation requirements are raised. They focused on kids 16 years old or younger who wouldn’t be allowed to drop out because of compulsory school laws. They found that the pattern held steady: Raising graduation requirements translated to a decrease in youth drinking.

The link the authors found is correlational, not necessarily causal. Cowan stressed that the data he and Hao used don’t enable them to pinpoint an exact reason for the relationship between curriculum rigor and drinking. Further study would have to be done.

The two analyzed data on more than 100,000 students from 47 states. Colorado, Nebraska, and Iowa were omitted from the study because they did not participate in all the surveys from which the numbers were collected. The data was taken from the Digest of Education Statistics which reports the minimum math and science credits required for graduation in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The researchers also used data from each state’s department of education and from national data for the years 1993 to 2011 from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System.

The study delved into a relatively untapped area of research and one that holds promise for changing students’ risky behavior, according to Cowan. He suggests schools take a closer look at how stringent their math and science graduation requirements are—and possibly even explore how those classes are structured from freshman through senior year and the qualifications of those teaching these classes.


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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.