Undoubtedly, we are well into the digital era. If someone asks what the fundamental driver of the 21st-century global economy is, the broad consensus would be innovation in science, technology, and engineering. On top of that, it seems math comes first and foremost and is at the core of every success.
Under this vision, more parents gradually believe their children need to develop strong math skills, not verbal skills, to secure a ticket into an elite university and lead a successful career path. As a result, the shift in the parents’ view on the value of math transmits into mandatory education. It motivates schools to put more resources and weight on math-intensive courses. Nevertheless, the skills required are multiple and, presumably, cross affects each other’s formation.
Before we simply conclude that one skill is more important than another, more attention is needed to understand and disentangle the influence of various skills on postsecondary educational outcomes. A recent work by Aucejo and James (2021) sheds some light on it. In their paper, they addressed three critical questions missing in the literature: 1. During the compulsory education stage, would math skills enhance verbal skills or vice versa? 2. How would the role of math and verbal skills impact university enrollment in general? 3. Could the differences in math and verbal skills between males and females help to explain the well-documented gender gaps in postsecondary enrollment?
To propose a formal analysis, Aucejo and James focus on the English school system, where the compulsory education is organized into four key stages, namely, KS1 (ages 5-6), KS2 (ages 7-11), KS3 (12-14), and KS4 (15-16). After the compulsory education ends, students may decide to pursue A-levels study (ages 17-18) to prepare for the university application or exit from learning. Aucejo and James employ extensive individual panel data in England to conduct their research, containing information on nearly 500,000 students spanning all education stages. A three-input nested constant elasticity of substitution (CES) function is used to model the dynamics of skill developments.
Their results regarding the skill formations are pretty striking. In contrast to most people’s impression, math skills have almost zero impact on the development of verbal skills. Meanwhile, the opposite way works and is robust against genders and educational stages. For example, increasing KS2 female (male) verbal skills by 1 log unit would increase KS3 maths skills by 0.107 (0.094) log units. Similarly, growing KS3 female (male) verbal skills by 1 log unit would increase KS4 maths skills by 0.076 (0.024) log units. Verbal skills lead the first question.
Aucejo and James then turn to examine how math and verbal skills influence college enrollment. They run a logistic regression of the university enrollment on KS4 math and verbal skills and find the average marginal effect of 1 log unit increase in math skills is 0.053 for female students and 0.055 for male students. By contrast, the marginal impact of verbal skills is almost three times larger than math skills for both female (0.149) and male (0.128) students. These results detect a clear and robust signal that verbal skills matter more in university applications.
For a long time, in many countries, including Hungary, fewer male students register for university than females. Scholars have studied this puzzle intensively, but no one links it to math and verbal skills. Observing a consistent pattern that verbal skills are more important than math skills in both skills’ formation and university enrollment, Aucejo and James manage to channel this finding to the well-established university gender gap.
Distribution of KS4 skills by gender
Source: Aucejo and James (2021)
The figure shows the distribution of KS4 skills by gender. There is barely any difference in math between females and males. However, it seems females have a significant advantage in verbal skills. By exercising a simple decomposition through manually matching males’ verbal distribution to females and rerunning the university enrollment regression, Aucejo and James find the gender gap is fully explained. Indeed, the difference in verbal skills between genders shapes the college gender gap.
Admittedly, their results may not reasonably apply to all countries because of different education systems and social preferences. Yet, this article alarms us that improving verbal skills is at least equally crucial as developing math skills. Education should not be a fast-moving consumer good. Do not change the curriculum design swiftly and jump on the bandwagon blindly.
Aucejo, E., & James, J. (2021). The path to college education: The role of math and verbal skills. Journal of Political Economy, 129(10), 2905–2946.
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