PULLMAN – While trying to figure out why some teens engage in more risky behavior than others, WSU economist Ben Cowan found a troubling correlation. The higher a state’s community college tuition rates, the more smoking, drugs and sex teens in that state engage in.
Or, to put it more simply, as college expectations go down, risky behaviors go up.
His two primary findings are:
• Teens in states with low tuition at two-year colleges are more likely to say they plan to attend college;
• Teens in states with low tuition at two-year colleges are less likely to engage in risky behavior such as smoking cigarettes or marijuana, excessive drinking, or having multiple sexual partners.
Significantly, tuition rates did not seem to affect the risky behavior of all teens, Cowan said. But the connection was clearly visible among those teens whose most likely next step after high school would be community college.
It takes a tremendous amount of number crunching to isolate tuition rates from all the other factors that contribute to a teen’s decision-making process, but Cowan said his numbers are solid.
“I’ve tried to put (the data) through a lot of tests to see if it holds up, and it does,” he said.
Cowan said he uses rich data on teenagers that includes such variables as their family income, parental education and test scores.
“In performing my statistical analysis,” he said, “I am able to hold these and other factors constant when looking at the effect of tuition on expectations and risky behaviors.”
According to 2009-2010 data from the Washington Higher Education Coordinating Board, New Hampshire has the highest in-state community college tuition and fees at $6,262 for a full-time student, followed by Vermont, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Alaska, Massachusetts and New York, all of which cost between $5,000 and $4,000 a year.

Washington ranked 24th, according to the 2009-2010 data, with community college tuition and fees just under $3,000. Seven states had community college tuition less than $2,000 and California had the lowest community college tuition in the country at $780.

In a paper that has been accepted for publication by the “Economics of Education Review,” Cowan writes that, on average, a $1,000 reduction in tuition and fees at two-year colleges reduces the number of sexual partners a youth had in the past year (by 26 percent), the number of days in the past month a youth smoked (by 14 percent), and the number of days in the past month a youth used marijuana (by 23 percent).
It’s not that middle-achieving high school students are monitoring tuition rates at their local community college and making decisions accordingly, Cowan said, but more likely that their expectations are based on what they see their friends doing and what kind of messages they are getting from their parents or school counselors.
If the cost of community college appears to be prohibitive, Cowan said, students are less likely to curb their risky behavior. If the future looks dim, why plan for a long and healthy one?
“What this suggests is that one of the benefits of low tuition is reduced risky behavior among teens,” Cowan said. “This is a component that has probably been left out of the discussion (of college costs).”
Cowan said this research grew out of his interest in a long-standing debate in the literature over the relationship between schooling and health. It has been well established that the more schooling a person has, the more likely he or she is to develop healthy habits, he said, but no one knows why.
Some have argued that more schooling, or becoming more educated, equips people to make healthier choices – that there is a causal relationship between school and health habits. Others have argued that people who choose to pursue more schooling also choose to make healthier choices, so it is simply a correlation.
Cowan said his interest in the subject was piqued by the realization that smoking and education are negatively correlated post-schooling – the more education, the less likely a person will smoke – but most people start smoking in their teens – when everyone has about the same level of education. So Cowan looked hard at the data and came up with another possibility: Perhaps it’s not the schooling itself that makes a difference, but a person’s expectation of educational achievement.
And that set him on the research project that eventually became his job market paper. After earning his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Cowan joined WSU in fall 2010. His research projects include analyzing who pays for smokers’ elevated healthcare expenses and evaluating the effects of partner accommodation policies on academic hiring, retention and promotion.
“I generally believe that when people have a brighter view of their future it influences their behavior today,” he said.