Do you think placing low-income students in better high schools will decrease their chance of making bad choices? Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) have published one of the first studies to examine whether a high-quality education influences a student’s willingness to engage in risky behavior.

“These students' higher cognitive skills may lead them to better health literacy and decision-making," said the study’s lead researcher Dr. Mitchell Wong, a professor of medicine in the Division of General Internal Medicine and Health Services Research at UCLA, in a press release. "They may be exposed to less negative peer pressure, and the school environment may promote the resilience that steers them away from these risky behaviors."

By placing students who come from low-income homes into high-performing public charter schools during some of their most formative, and arguably, most important years of high school, researchers found they were less likely to be influenced by negative behaviors. What does one define as negative "risky" behavior? 

Risky behavior includes the use of tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana within the last 30 days the study was conducted. While "very risky behavior" included binge drinking, alcohol use in school, use of any drugs other than marijuana, carrying a weapon to school, gang membership, pregnancy, multiple sex partners, sex under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or sex without the use of contraceptives.

When students were placed in higher quality schools, there were less opportunities to experience risky behaviors because there were less students presenting those experiences. Researchers came to this conclusion by comparing two groups of high school students form low-income neighborhoods in Los Angeles. “In addition, in a better academic environment, students spent more time studying, leaving them less time to engage in risky behaviors,” Wong said.

There were 521 students offered admission to a high-performing public charter school thanks to their district lottery, and another group of 409 students who did not receive admission and were left behind in a lesser quality school. Researchers observed and compared both of the student groups’ health behaviors and standardized test scores.

They found that students who attended the high-performing schools performed, with no surprise, much better on standardized tests than those who didn’t. The better school also had a smaller percentage of students engaging in very risky behavior compared to the lesser-quality school (36 percent compared to 42 percent, respectively). There wasn’t a significant difference in simply risky behavior between the two groups.

Going forward, putting quality public charter high schools in low-income neighborhoods could benefit students’ long-term behavior and health, and shrink the academic-achievement gap between wealthy and low-income students.

Source: Wong M, Wade RJ, Shea JA, Rubin D, Wood J. Adverse Childhood Experiences of Low-Income Urban Youth. Pediatrics. 2014.