Essays on the Economics of Education

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Female underrepresentation in STEM fields is, in part, driven by gender differences in pre-college academic preparation. Female and male students take different courses in high school, leading to different college majors and occupations. This dissertation studies decisions about which courses to take in high school, to better understand how students select into different levels of pre-college academic preparation.

The second chapter presents evidence of gender differences in intended college major among high school students in North Carolina, the sample I study throughout this dissertation. Boys are more likely to intend to major in a STEM field, though girls make up the majority of Biology and Pre-Medicine majors. Gaps in STEM majors cannot be explained by differences in ACT scores. In addition to being more interested in STEM, boys are less certain of their intended major.

The third chapter focuses on students' decisions about which math classes to take in high school. After controlling for course grades and ability, I find large gender differences in the decision of whether to take Precalculus after Algebra 2. Boys are significantly more likely to take Precalculus than girls with comparable academic performance. Gender gaps widen over the course of the math curriculum. I propose some possible explanations for these results, including gender differences in comparative advantage and effort, which would affect the costs and benefits associated with taking advanced classes.

In the fourth chapter, I estimate a model of course selection in math and English in order to understand the drivers of gender differences in high school coursework. In the model, students choose a bundle of courses to take instead of considering each subject independently. Relaxing the independence assumption allows me to explore whether gender differences in the costs of bundling multiple advanced classes can explain the observed sorting patterns into advanced classes. The results indicate that, while gender differences in ability, past academic performance, and preferences for math and English play a larger role, gender differences in bundling costs do contribute to gender differences in course selection patterns.






Denison, Erin (2023). Essays on the Economics of Education. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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