As Congress irons out spending priorities for the coming year, education funding is sure to be on the table. Budget talks around education will understandably center on how a better educated citizenry can fuel our nation’s economic growth and competitiveness. What’s likely to be less talked about among our lawmakers – but critically important to the conversation – is how investing in education a smart strategy to improve our nation’s health and curb the rising costs of medical care. 

We know that education plays a key role in shaping health outcomes, and the price paid for a lost education—in terms of life expectancy and disease rates—has never been greater. Research finds that Americans with less education live shorter lives and are prone to higher rates of disease, and those without a high school diploma are living sicker, shorter lives than they did in the 1990s.  

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That’s why our leaders in Congress must approach budget conversations with a comprehensive understanding of education – from early learning to improved access to college and job training – as a means to not only better our nation’s economic standing and the next generation’s job prospects, but also to make a lasting impact on public health and help control the spiraling costs of health care. 

It’s no secret that federal outlays for health care go disproportionately to the care of people with limited education, who tend to be sicker and require more intensive care. This is especially true of Medicare and Medicaid. It’s estimated that four out of five federal Medicare beneficiaries and three in 10 adult Medicaid enrollees have a preventable chronic condition — like diabetes and heart disease — that could decrease with improved levels of education.  

These avoidable conditions place enormous fiscal pressure on governments. Diabetes alone costs Medicare and Medicaid nearly $110 billion annually, and similar patterns are also seen for hypertension and heart disease. But research finds that the risk of these chronic ailments decreases significantly for every year of schooling a person completes. So, ensuring that students stay in school – and that our schools are given the resources needed to do their important work – is critical to stopping serious, yet avertable, health problems before they start.  

Policymakers may worry that investing in education takes too long to reap meaningful returns, but research is showing that interventions as early as preschool and elementary school can yield short-term benefits as well, such as reducing the prevalence of costly childhood diseases like asthma, attention deficit disorder and childhood and adolescent obesity — a serious public health problem that costs taxpayers nearly $100 billion every year. These positive impacts can be seen as early as second grade.  

The economic benefits of education, so often touted by policymakers in the form of higher wages, income stability and more opportunity, also extend to health. More education, particularly for those who pursue some college, means greater access to jobs with health benefits and higher wages that enable families to purchase nutritious food, afford better care and live in healthier neighborhoods. Not investing wisely in innovative strategies to improve educational attainment, or cutting funding for education — often out of need to offset health care spending —could ultimately escalate the costs of care, leaving us with a sicker, less productive workforce.  

For a nation worried about its spending on health care, now topping $2.7 trillion per year and 18 percent of the gross domestic product, education may prove a more effective solution than health care reforms currently in the news. Reforming how we deliver health care is important, but better education for our youth and workers may do more to balance state and federal budgets. In fact, it’s estimated that if the health status of less-educated Americans were the same as that of their college-educated peers, the related improvements in health would save more than a trillion dollars annually. That’s money that federal and state budgets desperately need for other spending priorities.

For the health of families and the nation, improving education is a win-win scenario. America’s 21st century knowledge economy requires a more educated workforce, and our children deserve longer lives and less disease. This budget season, it’s up to policymakers to connect the dots between education and health, and view education funding as a smart strategy to help more Americans get well, and stay well. 

Woolf has served as director of the Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center on Society and Health (formerly the VCU Center on Human Needs) since he established it in 2007. He is also professor of Family Medicine and Population Health at VCU.