University graduates have better health, fewer accidents and are less likely to suffer from depression in later life than adults from similar backgrounds who do not have degrees, a study has found.
Men who drop out of university are nearly three times as likely to be depressed and unemployed more than a decade after leaving than those who finished their degrees. Also, university dropouts show higher levels of depression by the time they are 33 than students who left education after their A-levels, the research found.
The author of the study, Professor John Bynner of London University's Institute of Education, said the findings suggest that dropping out deals a devastating blow to students' confidence from which they take a long time to recover.
"Dropping out from university – an experience that provides so many positive opportunities – can be very damaging," he said.
The study, which was undertaken for the Higher Education Funding Council for England, found that female dropouts did not show such marked depression as men, Professor Bynner said. However, they were more likely to be assaulted by their partners than women with different education levels.
Male graduates are much less likely to be victims of accidents or assaults than non-graduates, and female graduates are less at risk of being assaulted by their partners. Graduates also reported fewer educational problems among their own children.
"The critical issue is lifestyle. Going into higher education does produce a lifestyle which is less prone to accidents and violence of various sorts," Professor Bynner said.
The friendships made at university could also mean that graduates had a social network to stop them getting depressed, Professor Bynner said.
"At university, students experience the highest form of social interaction of any form of education. In higher education you are continually in conversation and developing contacts," he said. "While at university you make networks of friends who you go on to see after university and [who] probably live near you. That is part of a community which you carry with you from higher education."
Previous research has shown that graduates earn substantially more than workers who do not have a degree. Male graduates earn 12 per cent more than men who only have A-levels, while female graduates earn 34 per cent more than women without a degree.
But the council's study is believed to be the first to look at the non-economic benefits of higher education. The research used data from the National Child Development Study, which follows the fortunes of every child born in the first week of March 1958 – about 17,000 children. The study also used follow-up surveys from when the children were aged seven, 11, 16, 23 and 33.
Sir Brian Fender, the council's chief executive, said: "This research provides us with definite evidence of something many people have long suspected, but which has been hard to confirm – namely, that higher education offers benefits far beyond the simply economic advantages of having a degree.
"Clearly, higher education is a profound force for social good, and this research shows why plans to widen higher education to all those who can benefit from it are so important."
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