The Promise of New Math Gateways

By Pamela Burdman  | Senior Project Director, Just Equations

It’s been more than five years since higher education institutions began to move away from one-size-fits-all math requirements to an approach that tailors students’ math courses to their area of study. Over that time, I’ve been watching as states across the country began diversifying students’ options for fulfilling math requirements, and thus lifting arbitrary barriers to college completion — especially for students in non-STEM fields.

Leading math organizations have expressed a sense of urgency to make their discipline more relevant for students. And in California, successful innovations have opened up opportunities for students, only to be stymied by a set of policies that made the approaches difficult to scale up, as my reports have documented.

Now — thanks to leaders and faculty at California State University and the California Community Colleges, with a big assist from the state legislature — all of that is changing. Under new regulations governing how students meet their college math requirements, the barricades are falling:

  • Community colleges will no longer place the vast majority of their students into remedial math courses.
  • CSU has dropped a placement exam that once found that about one-third of its students lacked proficiency in math, despite having taken three or four math courses in high school. Those students will now be allowed to take college-level math courses and provided with extra support to succeed.
  • Community college students transferring to CSU no longer have to take a course with  an intermediate algebra prerequisite.

These changes have the potential to open new doors for tens of thousands of students each year, students who in the past might have gotten stuck in remedial math courses they didn’t even need. Under past policies, African-American and Latino students have disproportionately faced such courses, which research shows can impede, rather than boost, students’ progress in college. But the effectiveness of the new policies will hinge on how they are implemented.

To learn more about those possibilities, check out my new report, just released by Just Equations (a project of the Opportunity Institute) and WestEd.

Written with colleagues at WestEd and the University of Michigan, the report highlights how colleges and universities are now offering multiple pathways through mathematics. Rather than a sequence of algebra courses to prepare for calculus, students in non-STEM majors can take courses in areas like statistics, quantitative reasoning, and business math that constitute relevant and rigorous alternative pathways to a degree.

The report focuses on California’s community colleges, where we found that such offerings are plentiful among the math courses that count for transfer to four-year universities. But many students don’t have a chance to take these courses, partly because nearly half of students never get beyond a remedial math course. Among those remedial courses, very few are aligned with students’ programs of study, meaning that algebra requirements may be setting arbitrary barriers to their success.

Remedial enrollments are one thing that will change dramatically under new policies that community colleges will implement next year. A diversified math pathways approach can help colleges ensure that students get the rigorous and relevant math foundation they need to be successful in their futures.

Read the report