Why learning more high school math now could make kids richer later
Parents and math teachers regularly asked by their school-aged charges whether math matters in real life may now have an answer.
In a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research this week, Harvard Kennedy School Policy Professor Joshua Goodman took a look at what happened to students whose high schools were required in the 1980s to increase the minimum level of coursework required to graduate. What he found is that black students were more likely to increase the number of math courses they took as a result of the change in standards and that translated into higher earnings down the line.
Put simply: About 15 years after they graduated, African-American high school graduates who went to school when these changes took effect saw their average earnings increase about 10% for every extra year of math coursework. The findings may add fuel to the steady drum of education experts, policy makers and others calling for an increased focus on science and math education. “Our efforts to increase access to high-quality science and math education likely do matter for people’s life outcomes,” Goodman said.
The increase in required math courses didn’t necessarily produce rocket scientists, Goodman notes, because the extra coursework wasn’t at a particularly high level. But becoming familiar with and practicing relatively basic math skills allowed high school graduates to pursue and excel at jobs that required some level of computational knowledge, he said.
There’s other evidence indicating that having a comfort level with basic math principles can go a long way. Requiring students to take an extra math course increases the likelihood that they’ll build wealth through real estate and other assets and decreases the likelihood that they’ll experience foreclosure or become delinquent on credit card debt. “It just seems like a lot of things that many of us take for granted in life depend on being able to do some pretty basic computation,” Goodman said.
This study indicates that local policy makers can play a role in ensuring students acquire those skills, he said. White high school graduates didn’t see much of a boost in earnings as a result of the increased math requirements and Goodman speculates that’s because they were more likely to be in better-funded schools that were already going beyond their state’s updated requirements.
Still, Goodman acknowledges that the earnings boost for black students correlated with the uptick in math education may be dependent on the state of the economy. When Goodman checked in in the late 1990s and early 2000s on the earnings of black students who graduated in the late 1980s, he found that their earnings increased significantly if they took more math. But when he looked at their earnings again after the Great Recession, he saw the earnings effect disappear.
He posits two possible explanations for this. Firstly, as high school graduates get further away from their high school career, students with fewer math skills ultimately catch up. Secondly, math skills may be more desirable during different periods. The tech boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s may have meant that math skills were particularly valuable. Whereas, the more service-oriented economy of the late 2000s may put more of an emphasis on softer skills. “Some of these results may be dependent on what the labor market looks like at any moment in time,” Goodman said.