A graduating senior found that in Illinois, the lack of funding in rural schools can impact how long their students will live.
School districts in rural areas often have a significant disparity in funding compared to more urban areas. Senior political science major Jacob McGowan of Harrisburg, Illinois, linked rural education to life expectancy in his senior research project. McGowan said he became interested in doing this research after noticing the disparities in education between himself and his peers.
“Being from Harrisburg, Illinois, I kind of grew up in a school system that was what I would describe as under-funded,” McGowan said. “I think I really realized this once I came to SIUE just talking with other students and discussing our experiences in high school and even before that, like, the level of technology and overall resources that are provided throughout education made me realize that what I had received at Harrisburg was a lot less than some of my peers at SIUE. Taking that forward I wanted to explore how that would affect certain things.”
McGowan decided to link education and life expectancy after studying how life expectancy has been decreasing in recent years. He said he chose public education because it determines variables like income and future education.
“When I chose education to look at and how that affects life expectancy I was more so using education as a proxy for a set of variables. The way I think of education is — so your high school education is what’s going to set you up for your college education, right?” McGowan said. “Then your college education is going to set you up for your job and then your job is going to set you up with your insurance and your overall quality of life. I was saying ‘If these students don’t have the funding to ensure that they have a good level of education early on, is that going to have some sort of ripple effect later on and cause that life expectancy to lower?’”
McGowan looked at education funding and life expectancy on the county level within Illinois and Ohio, then studied those statistics on the state level in all 50 states. He said he found that education did impact life expectancy in Illinois.
“I ultimately was able to reject my null hypothesis in Illinois. So, in other words in Illinois as student spending increased, life expectancy also increased,” McGowan said. “It was supported in that case, but I wasn’t able to make that conclusion for Ohio or all 50 states. That was my main conclusion with that.”
Students have a harder time accessing statistics than professional researchers. McGowan said he believes he wasn’t able to link rural education to lower life expectancy in the rest of the country due to his limited access to data.
“I expected the relationship to be a little bit stronger but I didn’t see that with all the cases. I did say in my research that this is likely due to my ability to gather data,” McGowan said. “Being a student I don’t have access to all the data that other researchers typically would, so I think if I had access to some of that data I would probably be seeing more results that I predicted.”
According to the CDC, citizens in rural areas are at higher risk for common causes of death like heart disease, cancer and strokes. Political science professor Laurie Rice said McGowan’s research can be used to advocate for increased funding for rural schools in Illinois.
“I think [his research] shows us that one of the ways to increase rural life expectancy and decrease some of the disparities that we see by region in life expectancy is actually to invest in education,” Rice said. “He did statistical models of the U.S. as a whole and he did within the county level for Illinois and Ohio and particularly in Illinois he found that there’s a link between how much a school district spends on students and their education and life expectancy. Increasing the investment that we make might be one way to help solve this disparity that we see in life expectancy based on people who live in rural areas.”
McGowan is graduating this semester and has been accepted into law school at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Political science department chair Ken Moffett said it was well-deserved after all his hard work.
“It's very, very well-deserved. He’s worked hard. He’s worked diligently,” Moffett said. “He’s worked well and I’m proud of him. I’m happy to have had him as a student in the department.”
McGowan won the fall 2019 Senior Assignment Award in the Political Science Department. Other Honors Day award recipients can be found on their website.