Tougher Class Requirements Reduce Risky Teen Behavior

students working on computers

If you are like most parents, you worry that your teen will engage in risky behaviors like drinking, drug use, and smoking. So, to help prevent these activities, you keep them involved in extracurricular activities like soccer, piano practice, and community service activities. After all, if they stay busy with positive activities, they will have less time for the negative ones.

But there may be other ways to keep them from acting out. Research shows that the type of work they do in school also can impact what they do outside of the classroom. In fact, according to a paper in the American Journal of Health Economics, higher academic demands can reduce risky teen behavior.

The study found that when schools and states increase math and science high school graduation requirements there is a reduction in alcohol consumption among students. These higher standards also impacted the likelihood that students would smoke marijuana or cigarettes.

Additionally, researchers discovered that when academic standards became more demanding, teens drank on fewer days. Increased standards also impacted the rate at which teens engaged in binge drinking.

Academic Standards and Risky Teen Behavior

Zhuang Hao and Benjamin Cowan, the study's authors, examined the number of math and science courses that states required for a high school diploma and its relationship to risky behavior among high school students. The data they used covered the years 1993 to 2011 and included more than 100,000 students across 47 states.

It is important to point out that between 1993 and 2013, 40 states and the District of Columbia increased graduation requirements, increasing the number of courses in each subject that were necessary for a high school diploma. Most of the increases were in math and science.

For example, before states increased requirements, students were required to complete between two and six math and science courses for graduation. But by 2014, the range was four to eight math and science classes.

Hao and Cowan discovered that for each additional math or science course required for graduation, the probability that the students drank or engaged in binge drinking fell by 1.6%. The results were slightly greater for male students and nonwhite students.

One explanation for this is that male teenagers tend to binge drink more than females. As a result, there was a greater opportunity to reduce this unhealthy behavior. As for the nonwhite students, some speculate that they are more affected by state requirements because they are more likely to take the minimum number of courses required. Another explanation is that they attended schools that initially had lower graduation standards before the state laws were passed. 

Overall, the study does not explain why higher graduation requirements might reduce risky behavior. But the authors offered a few ideas.

First, they feel that greater academic demands at school require more time from students. Students spend longer hours doing homework, completing projects and studying. As a result, students who spend more time on schoolwork have less time to get into trouble.

There are other studies indicating that teens may benefit from higher math standards for high school graduation. For instance, a National Bureau of Economic Research study found that male and nonwhite students with higher math standards for graduation earned more money in the long run. These findings are supported by other studies with similar findings. 

A study in the Journal of Health Economics shows that staying in school reduces smoking rates and delays drinking. And because dropout rates are low for students under the age of 17, Hao and Cowan's findings hold up.

Multiple Benefits of Reducing Risky Behavior in Teens

Because the rate of drug, alcohol and cigarette use among teens is high enough to cause parents concerns, it is important that all avenues of reducing the risk of abuse are explored.

For instance, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one-third of high school students consumed alcohol in the last month. What's more, 18% had five or more drinks when they did engage in drinking. Meanwhile, one in five used marijuana in the past month while more than 5% has used cocaine or other drugs. And more than 10% of high school students smoke cigarettes. 

Reducing risky behavior in life has a number of benefits. Aside from the health benefits of not engaging in drinking, smoking, and drugs at an early age, research shows that habits that are often established during the teen years are very hard to break in adulthood. Consequently, deterring these bad habits for as long as possible has a number of long-term health benefits.

Additionally, using drugs, alcohol or cigarettes can have a significant and long-lasting impact on the developing teen brain. So it is within everyone's best interest to increase the math and science requirements students must meet to graduate.  

A Word From Verywell

Raising the graduation requirements for math and science are not the only ways to keep teens from engaging in risky behavior. There are prevention programs, higher taxes, and stiffer regulations that can help. But, when more rigorous math and science are offered at school, there are a number of other benefits as well. Aside from reducing the risk of drinking and substance abuse, these tougher requirements are also preparing kids for higher-paying jobs in the future. 

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Hao Z, Cowan B. The Effects of Graduation Requirements on Risky Health Behaviors of High School StudentsAm J Health Econ. 2019;5(1):97-125. doi:10.1162/ajhe_a_00112

  2. Goodman J. The Labor of Division: Returns to Compulsory High School Math Coursework. National Bureau of Economic Research. Updated September 2018.

  3. Jensen R, Lleras-Muney A. Does staying in school (and not working) prevent teen smoking and drinking? Journal of Health Economics. 2012;31(4):644-657. doi:10.1016/j.jhealeco.2012.05.004

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Underage Drinking. Updated January 3, 2020.

Additional Reading