Sociology, Economics Researchers Receive Grant to Study Development Across the Human Lifespan
AUSTIN, Texas — University of Texas at Austin sociologist Chandra Muller and economist Sandra Black have received a $3.4 million grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to study the effects of cognition on health, mortality, education and employment from high school and beyond.
The three-year grant will support a study, led by Muller, that follows 14,825 respondents (born in 1964-65) of the nationally representative “High School and Beyond” survey. Designed and funded by the U.S. Department of Education, the multiphase survey examines educational, vocational and personal development of young people beginning with their elementary or high school years, and following them over time as they begin to enter the workforce.
The findings will provide important insights into three key areas of American public policy — health care, economics and education reform. After the third phase of the study, Muller aims to provide concrete answers for various national concerns, such as the long-term costs of mental illness, the effects of recession and employment on health and mortality, and the benefits of higher education for minority populations.
“The overall goal of our research is to reduce costs to society later on,” said Muller, a professor in the Department of Sociology and the Population Research Center. “We know that learning shapes the life course, but we don’t know how or why. This study is going to be able to answer a lot of those questions.”
This is the first longitudinal study of its kind that spans the life course among a large sample of respondents across racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. The study will be unique in following the lives of a generation that has experienced pivotal events in American history, such as school desegregation, affirmative action, several recessions and dramatic changes in technology.
As part of the first phase of the study, the researchers will conduct phone surveys to examine the respondents’ cognitive skills, such as literacy and numeracy, and noncognitive skills including perseverance, drive and ambition. In collaboration with a team of researchers across disciplines, Muller and Black will analyze data on labor force participation and experiences, health status, family roles, plans and expectations for future work and retirement.
“As people begin to age, they do lose cognitive function, but we know almost nothing about when they decline or the role of noncognitive skills, their jobs and family relationships, and other factors that might keep their minds young,” Muller says. “That opens up some questions about where we should put our public dollars. To some extent, we can answer what’s important and what’s not.”
Muller is a leading human development sociologist who specializes in the effects of education policy on transition into adulthood. Black, a professor of economics and a research affiliate in the Population Research Center, is a renowned labor economist whose research examines how family background and early childhood experiences affect people's lives.