The Effects of Alcohol Use on High School Absenteeism

By Austin, Wesley A. | American Economist, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

The Effects of Alcohol Use on High School Absenteeism


Austin, Wesley A., American Economist


I. Introduction

In many health-related and social science fields, there has long been concern about the various harmful effects of alcohol use. A significant consequence of alcohol use is the potential reduction in human capital accumulation by drinkers. This issue is particularly acute during adolescence and early adulthood, in which decisions regarding high school completion and college attendance are first considered, and academic performance realizations that affect longer-term educational and economic outcomes are initially observed. Excessive drinking has been associated with this age group despite prevention programs and its illegality until the age of 21. For instance, data from the recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) found approximately 18 percent of youths (15--18 years old) and approximately 43 percent of young adults (18--25 years old) engaged in binge drinking (i.e. the consumption of five or more alcoholic beverages in one sitting, in the past month).

Several reasons might lead heavy drinking to impair human capital formation. Intoxication could interfere with school enrollment and attendance, and time spent in activities where drinking occurs could substitute away from time allocated to studying. This could hurt academic performance in the short term, which might diminish the ability or incentive to continue schooling over the longer term. Risks stemming from intoxication, such as injury from accidents or fights, pregnancy and disease from unsafe sex, conflicts with parents or law enforcement, and a tarnished reputation with school authorities might also limit the capability of a student to attend school (Cook and Moore, 1993). Alternatively, social interactions associated with drinking might improve academic achievement by providing a means of relieving stress (Williams et al., 2003).

Why is the potential impact of alcohol use on school absenteeism relevant for the discipline of economics? Substantively, human capital obtained from schooling bears directly on earning potential and strong relationships to individual health have been established. Moreover, variables such as, years of completed schooling, and dropout, are commonly examined education outcomes among broader literatures on human capital, given that they are easily measured and have a salient impact on future wages. This analysis augments the literature by investigating effects on absenteeism, i.e., classes missed due to "skipping" and illness or injury, which has not been widely studied despite potential effects on the educational outcomes mentioned above. Alcohol use, by raising absenteeism, can have confounding effects on outcomes such as grades and school completion.

As noted in the literature overview, some evidence has established a negative relationship between the regularity and intensity of drinking and human capital measures, such as school completion, and grades. But distinguishing whether these relationships are causal, such that increased alcohol consumption directly increases, for example, skipping classes, or merely correlational, with changes in other confounding variables simultaneously leading to drinking and lower class attendance, is worthy of investigation.

For economists and policy makers, obtaining an accurate estimate of the magnitude of the causal effect that alcohol use has on educational outcomes should be a primary econometric concern. This task is a natural one to tackle using econometric techniques such as instrumental variables (IV) regression.

II. Literature Overview

The relationship between alcohol use and human capital accumulation has been addressed by economists, but research on the topic had been fairly limited, with measures of drinking and educational outcomes, as well as conclusions, varying across studies. Early research produces evidence of a negative relationship between alcohol consumption and educational achievement, but either makes no attempt to econometrically deal with the potential endogeneity of drinking in education equations, or does so in a way that has since been criticized as unsatisfactory. …

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