College of Liberal Arts

Study shows high school math and civics predict voting behaviors in midlife

Thu, Aug 31, 2017
Students who completed Algebra I or higher were more likely to vote in both the elections than those who completed only general math
Students who completed Algebra I or higher were more likely to vote in both the elections than those who completed only general math

High-level math and engaging civics lessons in high school increase the likelihood of casting a ballot later in life, according to sociology research at The University of Texas at Austin, begging the question of how schools might increase political participation in future generations.

The United States voter turnout is below most other advanced democracies, with only about 60 percent of eligible voters participating in the past four presidential elections and about 40 percent participating in midterm elections. While prior research indicates that those with higher levels of education are more likely to vote, high school education has a powerful influence over midlife behavior.

“Adolescence sets the stage for skill development and status attainment across the life course, and the inequalities in learning during high school shape where students end up later in life,” said sociology Ph.D. candidate Jamie Carroll, who presented her findings at the American Sociological Association annual meeting in August.

In their working paper, UT Austin sociologists matched data from the High School & Beyond 1980 cohort with Catalist voting records to determine how 8,400 registered voters in the 2012 presidential election and the 2014 midterm election were influenced by their academic preparation in high school math and civics. 

On average, students who completed Algebra I or higher were more likely to vote in both elections than those who completed only general math. Nearly 40 percent of eligible voters who completed only general math abstained from casting a ballot in 2012, which grew to more than 60 percent in the 2014 midterm election. However, more than 70 percent of those who completed Algebra I or higher participated in the 2012 presidential election.

Overall, those who completed advanced-level math (trigonometry or higher) were most likely to vote in both elections, with 82 percent voting in 2012 and 62 percent voting in 2014. Participation in the midterm elections was lower in all cases.

“Students who take college prep courses in math are more likely to continue their education in college and earn a degree, make more money and have higher status occupations in early adulthood, and are in better health in midlife than students in lower-level courses,” said the study’s co-author Chandra Muller, UT Austin sociology professor. “All of these factors support civic participation and reduce the costs associated with voting.” 

Researchers also compared students’ civics test scores in their sophomore year compared to their senior year. While nearly 70 percent of students improved their understanding in civics, about 13 and 18 percent of students’ understanding stayed the same or decreased, respectively. Overall, students who tested higher in civics senior year were 4 percent more likely to vote in presidential elections and 5 percent more likely to vote in midterm elections, compared to those with comparable family and academic backgrounds who’s civics test scores did not improve. 

“There are gaps in student achievement by the sophomore year of high school. However, even when considering these gaps, we still find that math course-taking and civics test score changes during high school are related to voting in midlife,” Carroll said.

“If people who are currently underrepresented in our voting population and elected officials took higher-level courses and learned more about civics in high school, the policies that come out of the elected officials may look different. For democracy to survive, all citizens must enact their right to vote during elections,” she said. “To support individual voting, schools must consider the civic implications of unequal high school preparation.”

These findings add to a series of published reports from the High School & Beyond Midlife Follow-Up study, a project aimed at understanding the long-term effects of high school education and experiences on midlife outcomes. 

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