Does mathematical training pay off in the long run?

The California Community College mathematics controversy

Eloy Ortiz Oakley, the Chancellor of the California Community College system, recently recommended that intermediate algebra should no longer be required to earn an associate degree, excerpt for students majoring in some field of mathematics, science or engineering (see also this Physics Today report):

College-level algebra is probably the greatest barrier for students — particularly first-generation students, students of color — obtaining a credential. … [I]f we know we’re disadvantaging large swaths of students who we need in the workforce, we have to question why. And is algebra really the only means we have to determine whether a student is going to be successful in their life?

Another Los Angeles Times report describes a “growing number” of educators who have been challenging the “gold standard” of mathematics education in the California community college system, which in 2009 raised its elementary algebra minimum standard. The article asks

How necessary is intermediate algebra, a high school-level course on factoring trinomials, graphing exponential functions and memorizing formulas that most non-math or science students will rarely use in everyday life or for the rest of college?

The Algebra project

Along this line, is it realistic to train students in low-income areas to be proficient in mathematics?

Recently this issue was discussed in a National Public Radio segment. It mentioned Bob Moses, a black civil rights activist, who started the Algebra Project about 30 years ago. His goal was to take students (mostly black) who score the in the bottom tier on state mathematics tests, then double up on the subject for four years, preparing them to do college-level mathematics by the time they graduate from high school. Moses says that “this newfound competence is more than just empowering. It’s how these kids can avoid being second-class citizens when they finish high school, destined for low-wage, low-skill work on the second tier of an Information Age economy.”

Does mathematics education pay off?

So does mathematics training really pay off? Is it worth all the effort, time and trouble, both for students and for educators? In particular, does mathematics training pay off for blacks and other low-income minorities? A new report published by the National Bureau of Economics Research provides some answers (see also this synopsis).

In this study, Harvard scholar Joshua Goodman examined students whose high schools back in the 1980s changed their graduation requirements to require more mathematics. He found that 15 years after graduation, those African-American high school graduates who went to school when these changes were enacted earned on average 10% extra for every year of mathematics coursework.

Goodman noted that these students didn’t necessarily become rocket scientists, because the coursework was not at a particularly high level, but their familiarity with basic algebra and mathematics concepts allowed them to pursue and do well in jobs that required some level of quantitative and/or computational skill.

Other studies say basically the same thing. A 2014 study by Harvard scholars Shawn Cole, Anna Paulson and Gauri Kartini Shastry found that familiarity with mathematics helps in other aspects of life — those who finish more mathematics courses are less likely to experience foreclosure or become delinquent on credit card accounts.

The recent survey data from Glassdoor confirm that mathematics training is indispensable for high-paying careers. In their 2017 listing of the 25 highest-paying jobs in the U.S., 19 involve mathematical proficiency (according to a count by the present author). These jobs range from nuclear engineer and corporate controller to software engineering manager and data architect (a new and rapidly expanding occupational category).


One can argue how much mathematics required in various occupations, and what percentage of the future economy will require strong mathematical proficiency.

But for anyone who has any aspiration to pursue a career in science or technology, mathematics is a must. As the present author and the late Jonathan Borwein argued in response to a claim by the eminent biologist E.O. Wilson, limited mathematical proficiency may have been passable for a scientist 30 or more years ago, but it most certainly is not acceptable today.

In particular, the recent explosion of data in almost every arena of scientific research and technology, and the growing importance of careful and statistically accurate analysis of data, places more rather than less emphasis on mathematical training. For example (to pick Wilson’s field of biology), genome sequencing technology has advanced almost beyond belief in the past 25 years. When the Human Genome Project was launched in 1990, many were skeptical that the project could complete sequencing of a single human’s genome by 2005. Yet this was completed ahead of schedule, in 2002. This project cost nearly one billion U.S. dollars. Today, this same feat can be done for as little as $1000 in a few hours or days. As a result, DNA sequencing is being extensively employed in virtually every corner of biology, including evolution and paleontology, and is also well on its way to become a staple of medical practice.

Other fields experiencing an explosion of data (and a corresponding explosion in demand of mathematically trained analysts) include astronomy, chemistry, computer science, cosmology, energy, environment, finance, geology, internet technology, machine learning, medicine, mobile technology, physics, robotics, social media and more.

So it is time to put these arguments against mathematical education to bed. They are wrong. Let’s join with educators in finding ways to improve mathematics education, not fight against it.

[Added 05 Aug 2017:] A new report, citing a recent analysis of 26 million U.S. online job postings, has found that roughly 50% of the jobs in the top income quartile (those paying $57,000 or more) require at least some computer coding skill. As always, a fairly strong mathematical background is required for any training or employment in computer software.

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