High school rank linked to survival throughout adulthood

July 21, 2011 By Stacy Forster

A person’s high school class rank is good for more than just getting into a prestigious college.

A new study by a pair of University of Wisconsin–Madison researchers links class rank — a cumulative measure of responsible performance — with survival throughout adulthood. Class rank contributes to the development of mature behavior by late adolescence, the research shows.

“The effect of class rank on survival was three times greater than that of IQ over the course of adult life, from 18 to 69,” says Robert Hauser, Vilas Research Professor Sociology, emeritus, who authored the study with Alberto Palloni, Samuel Preston Professor of Sociology. “IQ is highly reliable but is based on a single test and reflects a narrow set of abilities.”

The association between IQ and longevity has been shown in many studies, but it has not been explained until now, Hauser says. Class rank is a behavioral measure based on a range of academic tasks — assignments, research papers, tests — over four years, in many courses with different teachers, thus requiring responsible, timely and consistent performance. It depends in part on academic ability, but it also reflects character, habit and personality, he says.

The findings were published in the July issue of the Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, supplemental issue on Cognition, Health and Aging. They are based on data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, a groundbreaking survey that has involved more than 10,000 graduates of Wisconsin’s high school class of 1957 during the last 54 years.

UW-Madison researchers have surveyed the class members several times since they graduated, asking questions about work, life, family and now, as the class ages, health. The class members had their cognitive abilities, or IQs, measured during their junior years of high school in 1956.

A study using Wisconsin Longitudinal Study data, published last year, demonstrated that higher academic performance in high school plays a critical role in better health throughout life.

The research is supported by the National Institute on Aging and the Fogarty International Center of the National Institutes of Health, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the William Vilas Estate Trust and the Graduate School at UW–Madison.