Will Math Make You Richer? Fed Study Doesn't Prove It

Photograph by Hill Street Studios/Corbis

A study released today by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland argues that studying more math in high school will make you more successful later in life. “Even among workers with the same level of education, those with more math have higher wages on average and are less likely to be unemployed,” says the commentary by former Cleveland Fed research economist Jon James.

This is an important question, and James is in good company. James Simons, who was one of the world’s most successful hedge fund managers, is a top mathematician, after all. Math “seemed like the world’s greatest career,” Simons told an MIT audience three years ago.

But others argue that making calculus a prerequisite needlessly dissuades many people from going into scientific and technical fields that really don’t require the skill. “Teach statistics before calculus,” argues Arthur Benjamin, a self-described mathemagician at Harvey Mudd College.

The parade of graphs in the Cleveland Fed paper showing a link between math studies and later success proves precisely nothing. After all, it could be that people take more math in high school because they’re smarter than classmates who go equally far in their education, are harder working, or both. They succeed in their careers because of those qualities, not because they know that the derivative of cos(x) is -sin(x).

James acknowledges this causality problem at the end of his commentary. He defends himself by saying another study, “using more sophisticated methods, finds similar results to the ones presented here.” That one, by two researchers from the Public Policy Institute of California, appeared in 2004 in the Review of Economics & Statistics. James may be right after all. But as the debate continues over when, where, and what kind of math education has value, this piece by itself doesn’t offer a reason to sign up for calculus.

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