Women in the front in a classroom

Flexible course selection boosts women's university enrollment


When students’ course-taking flexibility increased at upper secondary school in Sweden, more women from the Social Science program went to university. This is the result of a PhD thesis from the School of Business, Economics and Law in Gothenburg, examining how a reform in 2000 affected educational outcomes

Portrait of Andrea Berggren
Andrea Berggren studied the effects of a reform in Sweden that involved an increase in the share of elective course work.
Photo: Isac Lundmark

In the year 2000 Sweden implemented an upper secondary school reform which involved an increase in the share of elective course work but also a reduction in mandatory mathematics course load in the Social Science program.

Andrea Berggren, PhD student in Economics at the School of Business, Economics and Law at the University of Gothenburg, and PhD student Louise Jeppsson, studied the effects of the reform. The study compares all students in the most popular upper secondary program in Sweden, the Social Sciences program, who were born three months before and three months after the turn of the year 1983/1984, which determined whether they were affected or not by the reform in 2000.

Chose humanities and social sciences instead
The results show that both men and women discarded mathematics at a similar rate after the reform. Instead, they chose courses in the humanities, social sciences and art. This freedom of choice seems to have particularly benefited women in the Social Sciences program when it comes to their educational outcomes. For women, the probability of enrolling in tertiary education and graduating, increased by 3 and 5.6 percent.

– The study does not answer why, but one can guess that the women got a higher grade on average when they studied something that is more within their own area of interest. It may also have an effect that the Technology program was introduced at the same time, which attracted many men. Having more women in the class seems to have benefited the group, says Andrea Berggren.

Benefited different groups
The study also revealed that relatively disadvantaged students, measured along a socio-economic status index, were not negatively affected by the reform, but had an increase of 19 percent in the probability of enrolling in a mathematics intensive program.

– We can only speculate, but a high income can be extra important for those students, and therefore they ensure that they have the opportunity to apply for educations that may lead to a relatively higher salary.

Students from families with a high socio-economic status, however, had a reduced probability of attending a mathematics intensive program.

– We did not expect that. We had thought that they themselves or the parents had understood how important mathematics was for the future in terms of education and salary, says Andrea Berggren.

Change in curriculum an indication
The reform in 2000 resulted in the mandatory mathematics courses at the upper secondary level going from 9 percent to 6 percent of the total upper secondary credits.

– A change in the curriculum is an indication of what level of knowledge the government considers to be a minimum level. The decreased required course load in mathematics may signal that math skills are not valued as highly, says Andrea Berggren.

At the same time, the study shows that those who want enroll in tertiary education that require more mathematics still do so.

– The students seem to have been capable of making decisions that helped them further their education. However, we have not studied the effects on actual income as the students are too young. It would be interesting to see if the increased likelihood of higher education was also translated into increased income, for example if women benefit financially or not by a more flexible curriculum where they move on to educations that do not require mathematics to a greater extent, says Andrea Berggren.

Text: Jessica Oscarsson