Number of Math Courses Taken Said Linked to Future Earnings

January 11, 1989 2 min read

One of the most extensive studies ever made of the careers of high-school graduates confirms the conventional wisdom that those who take more mathematics courses earn considerably more in the marketplace.

But the federal study also found that “it is not true that the more math one studies in high school, the more math one is likely to take in college.”

Some 20 percent of those who earned bachelor’s degrees, it found, took no college credits in math, even though 37 percent of them had taken two-and-a-half or more years of the subject in high school.

And, it found, of the 30 percent of college graduates who earned six to nine credits of college-level math, 43 percent had studied math in high school for two years or less.

The study--conducted by Clifford Adelman and Nabeel Alsalam, researchers in the U.S. Education Department’s office of research--was released last month at a symposium sponsored by the Mathematical Sciences Education Board, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences.

Based on high-school and college transcripts and career data for nearly 13,000 of the 1972 high-school graduates, the study is perhaps the most extensive analysis ever made of students’ postsecondary careers.

“There is, quite simply, no other national data set like this one,” the authors write, “and there will not be another data set like this one until after 1992, when a parallel set of postsecondary transcripts for the high-school class of 1982 will be gathered.”

The authors found that, although mathematics and related courses account for 6 percent of all coursework taken in college, students take relatively little math after high school.

Among those who earn bachelor’s degrees, they found, 62 percent earned six or fewer credits in math, and one in five took no math courses at all. Among those who majored in education, 80 percent earned six or fewer credits in math.

Those who took more math courses in high school or later, the study found, earned “substantially more in their first decade of their occupational careers than others.”

“Baldly stated,” the authors write, “more math means more money.”

The study also found that:

Half of all math courses taken in two-year colleges and 22 percent of those taken in four-year institutions are at the precollegiate level of difficulty, including work in arithmetic, algebra, and geometry.

Black and Hispanic students and those who majored in education were considerably more likely than others to take such lower-level courses.

As expected, women were found to take substantially less math than men, and at more basic levels. In the group of courses in which statistics is taught outside of mathematics departments--coursework such as in economics, business, psychology, and biology--18 percent of the men and 10 percent of the women earned credits.--rr

A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 1989 edition of Education Week as Number of Math Courses Taken Said Linked to Future Earnings