By Elaine Huynh
An increasing trend in medicine is a greater focus on the social determinants of health. Mounting evidence shows that poverty is a disease and socioeconomic status is the greatest predictor of life expectancy. And, with a more holistic view of health and well-being, more and more doctors are directing patients to social services as a type of medicine. Fundamentally, a doctor’s prescription is only half of the key to access medicine. The other half is money, another barrier for low-income patients. And beyond the scope of affording a prescription, money affords health in the form of more nutritious foods, clean water, and mental health -- all preventive forms of healthcare. This is where social resources serve as medicine in itself. Just as effective as insulin, inhalers, and aspirin are food stamps, housing, and, most relevant to EduTrack, higher education post high school graduation.
According to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, education plays a prominent role as a social determinant of health, predicting employment options, health conditions, life expectancy, and the college prospects of offspring. Furthermore, UCSF references a study that found higher cognitive development in children with better-educated mothers. But, as tuition continues to skyrocket, higher education like college is becoming increasingly unavailable to families who lack the resources and support early on.
Coming from a low-income household, college was a reality for me at an early age only because my parents started an education IRA as soon as I was born, allowing the account to collect 18 years worth of savings for my college fund. Though neither of my parents graduated high school, the strong Vietnamese immigrant community they found in America directed them to resources for financial literacy, and they were able to make these financially smart decisions to prepare me for my college education. The existence of my education IRA was crucial to my matriculation to UC Berkeley. My parents felt comfortable encouraging me to attend college because they had the savings to finance it. My education IRA gave me the motivation to build a strong college application throughout high school, and it alleviated potentially overwhelming financial stress while attending college.
For many low-income students without an education IRA or other forms of college savings, the threatening cost of tuition often discourages them from maintaining their GPA, taking the SAT, participating in extracurriculars, or putting effort in other factors that determine their acceptances into colleges. And for the students who do build a strong college application, high tuition often discourages them from even applying to colleges they’re qualified for or accepting their offers to these colleges.
My college savings are so important to me that I profusely emphasize their importance to the parents of low-income high school students I work with at a local college readiness program. I’ve given presentations and workshops on the importance of saving at an early age, and I’ve had one-on-one conversations with parents about it. But, as I and many of my coworkers at this college readiness program understand, for many low-income families, saving for college happens too late to be fully effective, especially at high school age. Such a big feat requires an early start, and a greater impact can be made many years before high school. So, I propose a new, innovative medicine for poverty: higher education saving as postpartum care.
A few days after a mother gives birth, she stays in the hospital for postpartum care, during which she learns how to care for herself and her baby. Perhaps equally important, in the long-run, as burping and feeding for the baby’s survival is learning to start saving for the baby’s higher education. New parents should be educated on how to save for their child’s higher education, if we foresee a more educated, healthier society. Guaranteeing the funds for a higher education is preventive care for poverty, which we know to be an unforgiving disease. By ensuring all new parents are educated in saving for higher education at an early age, we level the playing field for students later on, both in education and life expectancy.