Higher ed grads lead most interesting lives, study says

Almost three-quarters of people with education or training beyond a four-year college degree said they learn or do something interesting every day. 

Mary Altaffer/AP
In this Thursday, July 9, 2015 photo, a student works during a High School 1 class at the Refugee Youth Summer Academy, in New York.

Graduates of higher education institutions have probably come across ambitious mission statements on schools’ websites and brochures that include goals of "fostering lifelong learning." 

But what exactly does ‘lifelong learning’ entail? And how does one go about achieving it? That’s what researchers at Gallup Poll and Healthways, a health-management firm, wanted to find out.

They asked a random sample of over 250,000 adults across the country to rate their level of agreement with the statement, "You learn or do something interesting every day," on a five-point scale.

The researchers also used the same method to analyze Americans’ “purpose well-being,” which Gallup defines as “liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals.” 

Because factors such as income could affect education levels and vice versa, which in turn affect whether one has the opportunity to learn or do interesting things on a daily basis, the analysis accounted for age, gender, race, income, region and marital status among those who agreed with the statement. 

The results?

The study found that most Americans, no matter what their education level, agree that they do in fact learn or do something interesting every day. But postgraduates stood out. 

Nearly 75 percent of people surveyed, with education or training beyond a four-year college degree, said they learn or do something interesting every day. Their numbers are significantly higher than those with a bachelor's degree (66%), some college or a two-year associate degree (65%), or a high school education or less (63%).

But how does one even to begin to measure lifelong learning? The poll suggests it’s possible if researchers use quantifiable, activity-based questions that look at graduates’ reading habits, how often they visit libraries, or whether they curiously browse the Internet searching for new information.

The study suggests asking more abstract questions as well, including whether graduates seek out conversations with people from diverse backgrounds or foreign countries.

According to the researchers, there are lots of factors beyond education levels that can also influence daily learning, such as the culture of the city or area where one lives. For example, earlier Gallup studies show that cities with a heavy academic presence tend to score higher in overall well-being. 

But the study comes with a notable drawback: lifelong learning and postgraduate education tend to mirror a chicken and egg relationship. “Some people are lifelong learners,” argues Dr. Don Martin, a higher education admissions expert and author.

In 2012, Dr. Martin wrote that lifelong learners “have an insatiable desire to add to their knowledge reservoir, challenge themselves academically, and experience what they consider to be among the most rewarding life pursuits: developing the mind.

“For these individuals, a graduate education offers the opportunity to do all of that and in a structured way that can deliver great personal satisfaction.” So it may be that a postgraduate spends his or her life learning out of that “insatiable desire”, which led them to higher education to begin with.

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