What's One of the Greatest Predictors of College and Career Success? Math

What a student completes in high school math predicts college graduation, postsecondary degrees, and career earnings

A report that examined the long-term outcomes of thousands of students across the United States found clear connections between the highest level of math completed by the end of high school and the highest degree of education attained 10 years later.1 Only 3% of students who had completed vocational math but no higher-level math courses (algebra and above) had earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, whereas 73% of students who had completed at least one calculus course held a bachelor’s degree or higher.

This research, along with several other meta-studies on the increasing awareness that later developing mathematical skills rely heavily on earlier developed skills (i.e. if they don't get fractions, they're likelihood of succeeding in algebra and beyond greatly drops), raises the urgency and importance of maximizing a child's attention to and support of their math education at the earliest age possible.

To further stress this importance, research finds that students who did not complete more-advanced math courses such as algebra or calculus were much more likely to dropout of high school or fail to earn a high school diploma.

For all ethnicities and all income levels, the higher the level of math courses a student completed, the more likely they were to graduate college with a bachelor’s degree.

Even 10 years after high school, math curriculum had an effect on annual earnings. Students who had completed a calculus course earned 65% more than students whose math education did not progress past a vocational math course. After accounting for ethnicity, gender, and other demographic traits; parental education and income; and high school characteristics, more-advanced mathematics courses still had an effect on annual earnings.

On top of that, math courses still seemed to have an effect on earnings when courses taken in other subjects were considered. Advanced-level English courses increased earnings, but not as much as advanced algebra or calculus did. In addition, algebra/geometry, intermediate algebra, advanced algebra, and calculus all appeared to increase earnings more than average-level English courses did.

Note that for all these analyses, the total number of math courses completed wasn’t the key factor—it was the level of those courses. As the authors put it, “it is not simply the number of math courses that matters; what matters more is the extent to which students take the more demanding courses, such as algebra/geometry.”

1Rose, H., & Betts, J. R. (2001). Math matters: The links between high school curriculum, college graduation, and earnings. San Francisco, CA: Public Policy Institute of California.