The case for de-emphasizing calculus in college admissions

Calling high school calculus “the next frontier in discussions about equity in college admissions,” a new report urges colleges and high schools to rethink how they value the course—and to adopt a more expansive view of math proficiency. Published by Just Equations, a nonprofit focused on the equity dimensions of math education, and the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), the report reflects survey responses from 137 private nonprofit and public institutions, as well as interviews with admissions professionals at 15 colleges.

The calculus conundrum

In A New Calculus for College Admissions: How Policy, Practice, and Perceptions of High School Math Education Limit Equitable Access to College, authors Veronica Anderson and Pamela Burdman explore the disconnect between the broader view of math education increasingly championed by math professional associations and entrenched perceptions about the admissions edge conferred by taking high school calculus.

Many students and families, they note, believe that calculus “is a must-have for those seeking admission to competitive colleges and universities.” But in the Just Equations/NACAC survey, just 5 percent of colleges—private institutions—required calculus for admission. Calculus requirements were more common (reported by 21 percent of respondents) for students pursuing science, math, engineering, or business majors.

Still, “calculus on a transcript carries prestige and a presumption of intelligence,” the authors note. When surveyed, almost 80 percent of admissions professions agreed that students who take high school calculus “are more likely to succeed in college.”  

Author Jeffrey Selingo, who wrote a book on the college admissions process, reinforced this recently in a speech to high school students. Advanced Placement calculus, he said, is highly desired by admissions officers, adding that they “are looking for students who challenge themselves.”

Who takes calculus?

But many students don’t even have an opportunity to take calculus. Only half of U.S. high schools offer the course. When looking solely at high schools serving predominantly Black or Latinx students, that figure drops to 38 percent.

Calculus participation also varies by race and socioeconomic status. Overall, 19 percent of the nation’s high school students graduate with calculus on their transcript. Just 9 percent of Black high school graduates took calculus, compared with 22 percent of white students, 14 percent of Latinx students, and more than half of Asian students.

Thirty-seven percent of high school graduates from the highest socioeconomic quintile took calculus, compared with 9 percent of those in the lowest socioeconomic quintile.

The race to take calculus also can cause students to “miss out on foundational math learning” and “crowd out statistics and data science, subjects that are more relevant to most students’ academic and career aspirations,” the report says. Inside Higher Ed notes that “math and science groups have been saying such things—and apparently being ignored by many in admissions—for years.”

Proceeding with an eye toward equity

While experts acknowledge that calculus is likely to remain a crucial course for some students, especially those pursuing STEM degrees, some high schools and colleges are working to clarify their position on the course—and to encourage a more expansive view of advanced math education.

The University of California and Stanford University have revised their admissions guidelines to make clear that they value statistics and data science on par with calculus. Ohio State University has created degree pathways that enable students to pursue STEM careers without having taken high school calculus.

Those sorts of clear, visible policies will be crucial in driving change, the report authors say. “For new math pathways to take hold, outdated notions about rigor must be reconsidered, so that high schools and colleges can ensure that students can acquire the quantitative skills they most need,” they write.

Ultimately, the conversation about math education “is less about calculus and more about equity,” Shirley Malcom, a senior advisor to the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, tells Inside Higher Ed. Giving preference to calculus in admissions decisions is creating obstacles for students who have no chance of taking the course and “pulling the oxygen away from other efforts,” adds David M. Bressoud, a math professor emeritus at Macalester College who served on the AP Calculus committee of the College Board.

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