June 7, 2023
Math and College Admissions

Adding Perspective: Why Student Voices Are Integral to Math Access

Elisha Smith Arrillaga
Adding Perspective: Why Student Voices Are Integral to Math Access

Access to rigorous, high-quality mathematics is essential for high school students reaching their full potential, whether or not they pursue a degree or career in STEM. To best understand students’ math opportunities, it’s important that we hear directly from them. Their perspectives are critical to finding and implementing solutions to improve access to advanced math courses.

The student voices in Just Equations’ new report, Integral Voices: Examining Math Experiences of Underrepresented Students, spotlight the mixed messages students receive about their high school math course options, including which courses they should take in preparing for college, and what college admissions offices take into consideration for STEM and non-STEM degree applicants.

Among our poll respondents, who were largely Black, Latinx, low income, or in the first generation of their family to attend college, students ranked “access to information about college admissions” as the biggest hurdle in the process of applying to college. Latinx students (40 percent) were more than twice as likely as White respondents (18 percent) to select “access to information” as their greatest barrier, along with 31 percent of Black students and 28 percent of Asian students.

“I wasn't really told what kinds of math courses colleges were looking for, but I assume that any high-level math courses such as AP courses were important to them,” one student said. “I also think calculus was the main math course they were looking for.”

Nearly 70 percent of students said calculus is the math course most important to college admission decisions. This finding aligns with prior Just Equations research showing that admissions officers tend to favor calculus on students’ transcripts, even though it is rarely required. 

“It was like an unstated rule,” one student said. “If you wanted to go to a good college later on, you would have had to take AP Calculus early on, just so colleges would see that you’re competitive.”

Yet not all students attend high schools that offer calculus or AP Calculus. And underrepresented students whose high schools do offer those courses don’t always accelerate to that level due to inequities in recommendations from counselors or math course placement before high school.

Just 41 percent of Black students in our poll report being recommended for calculus courses, compared to 50 percent of White students, 52 percent of Latinx students and 61 percent of Asian students. Even more jarring is that more than a third of Black students (38 percent) and more than a quarter of Latinx students (27 percent) report not being recommended by their high school to take any math course at all.

This disparity in coursetaking recommendations combined with differing assumptions about what colleges are looking for only exacerbates the inequities faced by underrepresented students and risks causing unnecessary and potentially damaging stress.

According to Integral Voices, some students who did not have a chance to accelerate during middle school were under pressure to rush through their math courses, enroll in summer classes, or pursue dual enrollment to “catch up.” 

“There was like this major rush to get into AP Calculus like your junior year. So in order to do that people were taking a lot of math classes over the summer,” one student said. “Personally, I took geometry and Algebra II in just one summer to hopefully catch up to meet that goal.”

On the other hand, not being aware of the importance of calculus—which our survey found is more common among first-generation students—can also disadvantage students, especially if they are interested in STEM. 

Students need support to consider their math options early on in high school as part of their college and career planning, with accurate information about the possible outcomes of those options, based on their school’s course offerings and the student’s potential path to college. And new strategies are needed to eliminate demographic disparities in middle school math placements. 

Greater transparency from college admissions offices on math requirements or preferences would also benefit students and the counselors who work with them. Calculus is rarely an outright requirement for college admissions except for students pursuing specific STEM degrees at highly selective institutions. This should leave students with the option to take other rigorous courses, such as statistics, that might better align with their interests. But students aren’t always getting that message.

“I was told to double up on math courses in my sophomore year so I could take AP Calc in my senior year,” one student said, “even though that wasn't something I was interested in or even related to my major.”

The students’ experiences, from course planning to counselor advice, provide an eye-opening look at the monumental role current systems and policies play in students’ future math success. Everyone should be listening. 

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