If college tuition has risen ~100% just since 2001, even after adjusting for inflation, it’s reasonable to wonder: is attending college worth it? Depends on what your goals are. Will it give you a leg up in certain careers? Likely. Is formal education a way to learn new skills? We can probably all agree it is. A more complicated question is, Does it make you smarter?
All of these questions are important as people evaluate the benefits and costs of getting a degree in the 21st century. And, as a recent study shows, Lumosity’s data can help clarify the relationship between cognitive performance and education.
* * * * *
A 2012 analysis showed that, when Norway raised the number of years of compulsory schooling from 7 to 9 years in the 1960s, the extra years of schooling had a distinct effect on IQ. When Norwegian men enlisted in the military, their IQ tests showed a 4 point benefit in IQ for each additional year of school completed. This analysis provided a basis for concluding that education contributes to higher cognitive functioning, but since it looked at only a small slice of a fairly uniform (no pun intended) military population, more research was needed to establish this connection in more general terms. That’s where Lumosity came in.
Using Lumosity’s vast data set, UC Berkeley graduate student Belén Guerra-Carillo, psychology professor Silvia Bunge, and Lumos Labs data scientist Kiefer Katovich compared cognitive performance to education level for nearly 200,000 people in their 2017 paper “Does higher education hone cognitive functioning and learning efficacy? Findings from a large and diverse sample.” Spoiler: the authors’ answer to the title question is Yes.
The data analyzed in the 2017 study came from Lumosity’s NeuroCognitive Performance Test (NCPT), a set of computerized assessments that measure cognitive function. The NCPT—a separate gauge from Lumosity’s training exercises—is based on pencil-and-paper neuropsychological tests that cover cognitive abilities like working memory, processing speed, cognitive flexibility, and reasoning. Study subjects took the NCPT before training with Lumosity and then again a few months later, to measure progress.
NCPT scores came from approximately 153,000 Americans, and 22,000 each of Canadians and Australians aged 15-60 (because people from these countries share a language, and have similar standards for entering post-secondary education). The scores from initial NCPT tests, in addition to education and age survey questions, allowed researchers to determine how cognitive performance and education related to each other over the course of one’s life. Could a college education starting at age 18 impact cognition decades later?
The initial cognitive performance measurements compared just first-time NCPT scores among differently educated groups across the age spectrum. The study found that “Differences in effect sizes were relatively large between the extremes of educational attainment (Ph.D. vs. Some High School, d = 0.80), moderate at a key educational juncture (Bachelor’s vs. High School, d = 0.51), and small between other adjacent education levels (e.g., Master's vs. Bachelor's, d = 0.08).” In other words, PhDs performed quite a bit better than did people with some high school, but having a master’s vs. a bachelor’s degree showed smaller differences, with a bachelor’s degree vs. a high school degree showing moderate differences in performance. In particular, people with degrees in higher education tended to score better on cognitive assessments that measured reasoning.
The study also found that the late teen and early adult years were associated with peak cognitive performance, but education seemed to affect precisely when that peak occurred. (To isolate the impact of education from other age-related changes in performance, the authors compared each person with peers in their age group, to see when people with a particular degree reached their peak.) Specifically, peak cognitive performance occurred closer to the end of a person’s educational career, so that more education meant that the peak came later, corresponding to an older age at graduation: people with a high school education showed peak performance at the age of 17, whereas 22 was the peak age for people with bachelor's degrees. The effect of education on cognitive performance lessened over time, but still left a perceptible trace for decades after graduation.
* * * * *
The research team also investigated whether education affects how quickly a person learns. That is, could that education also influence people’s ability to improve at those cognitive measures years down the road? To answer this question, the authors compared initial NCPT assessment scores with scores earned about 100 days later, after training via Lumosity. Indeed, those with higher education had larger improvements in performance. Interestingly, while differences in education translated to big differences in performance on the first assessments, it had a smaller impact on improvements. People with high school educations who practiced reached the same scores as those with some college had initially. So, the authors concluded that, “new learning opportunities can reduce performance gaps related to one's educational history.” Still, education did appear to have a lasting impact on cognition. Whether that’s in equal degree as the importance society places on education is another question, but a worthwhile one that this study begins to answer.