RDP 2021-06: What Is Driving Participation and Diversity Trends in Economics? A Survey of High School Students 4. Discussion and Implications

This paper provides an evidence base for those engaged in Economics education – and the economics profession more broadly – to promote participation and diversity in the study of Economics. The results may also inform how educators and career advisors communicate with students about subject choices in general and Economics in particular.

High school students in our Australian survey typically have positive perceptions of economics as a field; they think that economics is used for social good and not just all about money. This implies that the core elements of economics have broad appeal. However, the perceptions of Economics as a Year 11 and 12 subject tend to be negative; for example, that Economics is not interesting, has a heavier workload than most other Year 11 and 12 subjects, and is less useful than Business Studies. A challenge in increasing overall enrolments in Economics is to build interest, relevance and understanding to motivate high school students to study Economics.

We find that socio-economic status is the key school characteristic associated with the likelihood of a student studying Economics, while sex is the key student-level characteristic. That is, students are more likely to study Economics if they are male or in a school with a higher socio-economic status. Differences in perceptions between both students of different socio-economic backgrounds and sexes reveal underlying attitudinal factors that are reflected in the divergent likelihood of studying Economics.

Importantly, females (compared with males) and students from a lower socio-economic background (compared with higher socio-economic) are less likely to perceive they ‘have a good understanding of what Economics is’. A greater perceived understanding of what Economics is about also reduces some of the sex and socio-economic differences, such as the desire to know more about Economics, perceptions of teachers promoting Economics, and clarity of career opportunities. This implies that one possible intervention to address diversity deficits in Economics is to improve students' understanding of what Economics entails. Further research may test various informational interventions to establish which content and medium work best to improve perceived understanding of Economics.

Even controlling for perceived understanding, however, females are less likely to ‘have a clear idea of whether I would be good at Economics’ and students from a lower socio-economic background are less likely to feel ‘I could do well in Economics if I put my mind to it’. Without data to control for actual academic ability, it is not clear whether these differences reflect accurate assessments of ability, opportunity to do well or a lack of confidence (for a given level of ability). Nevertheless, this result implies that interventions that only provide information (i.e. increase understanding of what Economics is) are not enough to equalise perceptions and participation in Economics. Further research, that disentangles actual ability to do well in Economics from perceived ability to do well, would shed light on the relative merits of interventions that focus on developing relevant skills and those that focus on boosting confidence in the skills already held.

We also find that males are more likely to find Economics interesting (even controlling for perceived understanding). This may reflect an inherent difference in interest in economics between the sexes. Or it may reflect that the nature of the topics included in the Year 11 and 12 Economics syllabus appeal more to males than females; we find evidence that specific topics of interest do differ between the sexes. Further work may examine how well the Economics syllabus aligns with the interests of female students.

While this paper examines data for NSW students, future research may investigate perceptions of Economics according to the stage at which students are exposed to it (with the stage at which economics content is introduced to students varying by state, with some including it as a compulsory part of the junior high school curriculum). Further work may also evaluate the effectiveness of interventions at different stages of learning.