Sloan Foundation Awards $3.2 Million for Study on Cognition's Lifetime Effects

The University of Texas at Austin has announced a three-year, $3.2 million grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to enable sociologist Chandra Muller and economist Sandra Black to study the effects of cognition on health, mortality, education, and employment in high school and beyond.

The grant will support a study, led by Muller, that follows the educational, vocational, and personal development over time of 14,825 respondents (born in 1964-65) to the U.S. Department of Education's multiphase "High School and Beyond" survey, with the goal of offering insights into healthcare, economic, and education reform policies. Touted as the first longitudinal study of its kind — spanning the life course of a large sample across racial and socioeconomic backgrounds — the survey will examine a generation that has experienced pivotal events such as school desegregation, several recessions, and dramatic changes in technology.

As part of the first phase, researchers will conduct phone surveys to examine the respondents' cognitive skills, such as literacy and numeracy, as well as noncognitive skills, including perseverance, drive, and ambition. With a team of researchers across disciplines, Muller and Black will analyze data on labor force participation and experiences, health status, family roles, and expectations for future work and retirement. The aim is to provide concrete answers about the long-term costs of mental illness, the effects of recession and employment on health and mortality, and the benefits of higher education for minority populations.

"We know that learning shapes the life course, but we don't know how or why," said Muller, a professor in the Department of Sociology and the university's Population Research Center. "As people begin to age, they do lose cognitive function, but we know almost nothing about when they decline or the role of noncognitive skills, their jobs and family relationships, and other factors that might keep their minds young. That opens up some questions about where we should put our public dollars. To some extent, we can answer what's important and what's not."