Your High-School Maths Performance May Predict Your Future Salary

Think twice before skipping your geometry homework. The further you get in high-school maths, the better you’re likely to fare in the labour market.

Students who complete higher levels of maths in high school experience lower rates of unemployment and receive higher salaries, on average, than their less-accomplished peers, according to new research from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.

Using data from the Bureau of Labour Statistics, former Cleveland Fed researcher Jonathan James found that full-time workers who graduated high school but did not attend college earned about $US1.30 more per hour if they completed geometry or algebra II (“high maths”) than if they stopped at pre-algebra or algebra I (“low maths”). High maths achievers were also less likely to be unemployed, as you can see in the chart below:

Similarly, full-time workers ages 20 to 30 who dropped out of high school have higher median wages by $US1.66 per hour if they completed geometry or algebra II, instead of just pre-algebra or algebra I, and are also less likely to be unemployed. Here’s that chart:

Higher levels of maths achievement, in other words, benefit you in the labour market regardless of whether you graduate high school. James notes that the earnings gap between high school grads with high and low maths is about 10% — the same return, he says, as comes from one year of college.

“Put another way, students who find college prohibitively costly can potentially increase their earnings by making smarter choices while in high school, an institution with zero monetary costs,” James writes.

While the paper doesn’t speculate about why higher achievement in maths leads to increased earning potential, it seems reasonable to assume that better maths skills could translate to a higher-paying job. After all, much of what’s learned in courses like geometry and algebra II is applicable on an everyday, real-world basis. Additionally, students who complete high-level maths courses may have parents who place more emphasis on education, or may value it more themselves.

Over the past three decades, course requirements have nearly doubled the percentage of high school students that complete high-level maths courses — from 39% in 1982 to 75% in 2009. Still, James wonders if this change is good enough.

“If the payoffs to maths are so large,” he asks, “why stop at the minimum standards?”

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