Research Finds Studying Math Makes Students Richer

A new study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland reveals that students who advance further in high school math have higher future wages and are less likely to be unemployed.

The study found that advancing past Algebra II correlates strongly with finishing high school, graduating from college, and thriving in the workforce. The finding sits comfortably with 2001 research that students taking more advanced math courses in high school went on higher levels of educational attainment, writes Derek Thompson of The Atlantic.

“It would be a mistake to require all students take calculus,” said Heather Rose and Julian R. Bett, the authors of the “Math Matters” paper. First, it’s not clear our high schools have the teachers necessary to meet that demand for calc. Second, if we force highly advanced math courses on all students, we might be encouraging some students to drop out while the struggling students who remain encourage teachers to water down the work required to complete those courses.

In short, studying math puts students on a path to make more money. It will give students skills for which they will be rewarded with higher wages in practically every industry, because math skills are inherently valuable and having them increases a candidate’s appeal.

Taking lots of math is seen as a sign that one is a smart student, and smart students tend to earn more money whether or not they love math. Within the pool of smart kids, those who take lots of math tend to want, or are eventually drawn to, the kind of jobs with high wages, and smart kids who take lots of English classes tend to want, or are eventually funneled toward, jobs with lower wages — even if they’re just as “smart.”

Students who show an interest in math and related fields are often drawn into an orbit of higher-paying job opportunities like finance and consulting.

That means that, if you’re smart, it does matter whether you take advanced math courses, in as much as higher-paying jobs in finance, consulting, marketing, accounting require math skills, while other jobs in government, non-profits, and journalism, are populated by decently smart people who aren’t trying to maximize their income and wouldn’t have been helped much with math in their current jobs.

In other words, the “math–>riches” equation is a little bit of causation and a little bit of correlation.

Students from higher-income families in higher-income areas are more likely to go to well-funded schools that compete for the best and brightest students, which means they’re more likely to not only offer calculus but also build a culture of calculus-takers staffed with good teachers to make the material accessible.

Math and science education in the US has been criticized for years because of its mediocre results. But in the latest data, compared to their foreign counterparts, US eighth graders attending public schools in 47 states are actually above average in science and are above the international average in math in 36 states.

The analysis was conducted by the federal National Center for Education Statistics using scores from American 8th graders who took the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) in 2011 to predict what their performance would be on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), a highly respected gauge of academic ability. Actual TIMSS scores of students in nine U.S. states were used by the researchers to test their predictions.