A Meaningful Math Requirement: College Algebra or Something Else?

Most colleges and universities have a math requirement. Students must successfully complete a certain number of math courses (usually just one) to graduate.

At many institutions, the requirement is met by passing college algebra (CA). This course studies properties of functions and their graphs with an emphasis on the algebraic and graphical techniques that are needed for calculus.

This has always seemed problematic to me because calling a course “college algebra” does not necessarily make it college level. In fact, the standard CA course in American colleges and universities is identical to high school Algebra II. Many students will have completed that course by the end of their junior year in high school.

Why do colleges set the bar so low for their math requirement? That’s a question for another time, one that leads down all sorts of roads.

But given the reality that, for many schools, this is the math requirement, and given that the vast majority of students will have sent their college a high school transcript showing their successful completion of this course, you’d think that colleges would directly place most students in a higher level course.

That, however, is often not the case. College officials usually want to double-check that math ability, so they require students to take a placement exam to see if they are in fact ready for a higher-level course. Frequently the exam shows that they aren’t, so they must first take CA—or even some course below it.

The college is saying: “You had to jump through this hoop to graduate from high school. We’re going to make you jump through the same hoop again to graduate from college.” The unfortunate student must therefore repeat a course he probably struggled with and disliked, but ultimately managed to pass.

If this is the best we can do regarding the construction of a math requirement, then I’m inclined to say that it would be better to have no requirement at all.

Yes, I, a math professor, am prepared to argue for doing away with a math requirement if such a requirement is nothing more than a formal hurdle, adding little or nothing to a student’s education and only reinforcing the negative associations students already have concerning mathematics.

Such a requirement is a waste of time and does more harm than good. It will convince students that mathematics is useless, and it will permanently blind them to the need for the quantitative skills that are essential for grappling with a variety of important personal and societal issues.

If we are to have a math requirement, then at least let it be a meaningful look at something other than high school algebra.

The University System of Georgia has developed a “pathways” approach to this problem.  Students who plan to take calculus need to be proficient in College Algebra and so, if necessary, are directed to that course so as to prepare them for calculus.

Students who will not be taking calculus but nevertheless must satisfy a math requirement to graduate, are encouraged to choose from one of two courses designed to provide a meaningful exposure to mathematics via topics and an approach that don’t merely rehash high school algebra.

Both courses (Introduction to Mathematical Modeling and Quantitative Skills and Reasoning) are taught at the same level of sophistication as CA, and each is a better alternative to simply repeating the high school experience.

The point of these courses is to enable students to be able to evaluate quantitative information, so  they can make logical deductions and arrive at reasonable conclusions. Such skills are crucial in today’s world.

For example, we are barraged with studies suggesting that this or that food or medication is good or harmful to our health. What are we to make of those studies, especially since they often contradict each other? Students need to be able to evaluate the data accompanying such studies and understand the underlying models on which they are based. That’s knowledge they get from Introduction to Mathematical Modeling.

After taking that course, they’ll realize that they do need to know mathematics in order to make informed health and medical decisions. That will help to counter the common student idea, “I just don’t have any use for math.”

Knowing how to analyze quantitative information for the purpose of making decisions, judgments, and predictions is essential for understanding many important social and political issues. Global warming and gun control are but two of the much-debated issues where both sides use data and quantitative analysis to support their arguments. Quantitative Skills and Reasoning provides students the skills needed for evaluating such quantitatively-based arguments.

Through these courses, students realize that they need quantitative skills to evaluate claims being made on those and other issues. And with that realization, they will appreciate that mathematics is in fact important for life after college.

As a result, the student’s education will have delivered something of great value—much greater than just retaking algebra.

College algebra is important. The mathematical ideas it treats and the mathematical language and symbolic manipulation it uses to express those ideas are essential for students who will progress to calculus.

But for students who aren’t calculus-bound, CA is not a good way to enhance their quantitative literacy or instill some appreciation of what mathematics has to offer.

Rather than forcing them to slog through a course they’ve already taken and that is not an end in itself, it is preferable to offer them an opportunity to have a fresh, useful, relevant encounter with mathematics—one they might even enjoy.