Background: Educational attainment is highly correlated with social inequalities in adult cognitive health; however, the nature of this correlation is in dispute. Recently, researchers have argued that educational inequalities are an artefact of selection by individual differences in prior cognitive ability, which both drives educational attainment and tracks across the rest of the life course. Although few would deny that educational attainment is at least partly determined by prior cognitive ability, a complementary, yet controversial, view is that education has a direct causal and lasting benefit on cognitive development.
Methods: We use observational data from three birth cohorts, with cognition measured in adolescence and adulthood. Ordinary least squares regression was used to model the relationship between adolescent cognition and adult fluid cognition and to test the sensitivity of our analyses to sample selection, projection and backdoor biases using propensity score matching.
Results: We find that having a university education is correlated with higher fluid cognition in adulthood, after adjustment for adolescent cognition. We do not find that adolescent cognition, gender or parental social class consistently modify this effect; however, women benefited more in the 1946 sample from Great Britain.
Conclusions: In all three birth cohorts, substantial educational benefit remained after adjustment for adolescent cognition and parental social class, offsetting an effect equivalent of 0.5 to 1.5 standard deviations lower adolescent cognition. We also find that the likelihood of earning a university degree depends in part on adolescent cognition, gender and parental social class. We conclude that inequalities in adult cognition derive in part from educational experiences after adolescence.