DP14205 High School Rank in Math and English and the Gender Gap in STEM

Author(s): Judith Delaney, Paul J. Devereux
Publication Date: December 2019
Date Revised: February 2021
Keyword(s): college major choice, comparative advantage, Gender Gap, gender gap in STEM, High school rank, STEM
JEL(s): I20, I23
Programme Areas: Labour Economics
Link to this Page: cepr.org/active/publications/discussion_papers/dp.php?dpno=14205

Using unique data on preference rankings for all high school students who apply for college in Ireland, we investigate whether, conditional on absolute achievement at the end of high school, within school-cohort rank in English and math affects choice of college major. We find that higher rank in math increases the likelihood of choosing STEM and decreases the likelihood of choosing Arts and Social Sciences. Similarly, a higher rank in English leads to an increase in the probability of choosing Arts and Social Sciences and decreases the probability of choosing STEM. The effects of subject ranks on STEM are larger for boys than girls while there is no evidence of a gender difference in the effect of subject ranks on Arts and Social Sciences. We also find that English and math rank can explain about 4% of the gender gap in the choice of STEM as a college major and 9% of the gender gap that is not explained by absolute achievement. Overall, the tendency for girls to be higher ranked in English and lower ranked in math within school-cohorts can explain about 10% of the difference in the STEM gender gap between mixed-sex schools and same-sex schools and about 25% of the difference that is unexplained by absolute achievement. Notably, these effects occur even though within-school rank plays no role whatsoever in college admissions decisions. Overall, the findings imply behavioral effects of subject rank on college major choices that go beyond their effects on human capital accumulation in school.