Career paths associated with the study of science vis-à-vis other disciplines in high school, are considered more prestigious and renumerative in India. This article examines the association between studying science in higher secondary school and labour-market earnings. Results show that studying science in high school is associated with 18-25% higher earnings than studying business or humanities. These higher earnings are further enhanced if students have some fluency in English.
Every year in April and May, students going into grade 11 in India decide which subject stream – science, business (also called commerce), or humanities (also called arts) – they will study over the next two years. This anxiety-ridden decision directly affects the set of courses students can pursue after high school, and is considered to be a critical first step to a long-term career path. A large fraction of students (55%) end up studying science, which consists of physics and chemistry, along with optional subjects in mathematics, biology, and computer science. One consequence of so many students studying science is that India has the second highest number of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) graduates in the world, with the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) reporting that 35% of graduates in India are STEM graduates.
Why do Indian students prefer science in high school?
One reason for this might be the perception that more jobs are available after studying science in high school, and that career paths associated with science are more prestigious. A 2017 survey of high school students in Bihar and Andhra Pradesh revealed that 63% of boys in high school believe that society thinks highly of science students. The survey also showed a gap between students’ expectations on the value of science, and practical knowledge on educational and job options that follow from studying different streams.
Another reason is that students feel that the science stream offers an option value that other streams do not. Responses on online forums like Quora emphasise wider ‘scope’ after taking science in high school, that is, science students can move to humanities or business subjects in college, but the opposite is nearly impossible.
What are the economic consequences of studying science in high school?
In recent research (Jain et al. 2020) funded by the International Growth Centre (IGC), we study the career outcomes of students who study science in high school using data from the nationally representative Indian Human Development Survey (IHDS-2011 round). This dataset contains crucial information on high-school stream choice, wage and business earnings, and other labour-market outcomes and career variables. The survey also contains information on individuals’ demographic characteristics and performance in grade 10 (which allows us to control for ability). We focus on urban men aged 25-65 years who report information on high-school major choice and earnings. The key findings from the data analysis are:
- Earnings of science students are 18-25% higher as compared to those of non-science students. For the top 1% of wage earners, studying science in high school is associated with 37% higher earnings. In addition, we find that earnings associated with studying science is 25% higher for students who secured first division (that is, more than 60% marks) in grade 10, compared to 19% for students with below first-division marks. These results suggest that academically ‘better’ students might be more capable of translating science knowledge into higher earnings.
- Earnings of science students are 28% higher in case of those with fluency in spoken English, and 19% higher for those who have little English proficiency, as compared to non-science students. Science students with no knowledge of English have no earnings advantage over their non-science peers. These findings indicate the critical role of English language skills in complementing science education in the job market. Similarly, computer skills could be advantageous in many STEM-related jobs. Indeed, earnings for science students who are proficient in computers are significantly higher (31% for first-division students and 19% otherwise), compared to corresponding non-science students. Conversely, science students with no computer skills earn only 7% more than non-science students.
- Students belonging to Scheduled Castes/Tribes have no earnings advantage by studying science in high school. Overall earnings are 25% higher for science students in the general category, and 20% higher for students from Other Backward Classes. Thus, socially privileged individuals might benefit disproportionately more from science education since they might have access to job and commercial opportunities required to convert education into higher earnings.
- Studying science is associated with 0.22 additional years of post-secondary education. Science students are 5% more likely to complete a bachelor’s degree and 6% more likely to complete a professional degree.
- Studying science is associated with working in relatively secure public-sector jobs, but only for students with second or third division in grade 10 exam. We do not find any effect on private-sector tenured employment or business employment. Many high-quality private-sector jobs might not be available for the low-ability students, leading them to prefer public-sector jobs, and having technical backgrounds might improve the likelihood of getting one.
A scientifically minded workforce is one of the economy’s most important assets. We hope that the findings from our research will inform both students’ decisions as well as policies to improve education and promote science.
- Jain, T, A Mukhopadhyay, N Prakash and R Rakesh (2020), ‘Science Education and Labour Market Outcomes in a High STEM Economy’, IZA (Institute of Labor Economics) Discussion Paper No. 11908.