Although today’s technology-rich environment has changed the way math is used in many fields, college admission still relies heavily on decades-old math expectations, viewing calculus on a transcript as a gold standard while slighting other rigorous math offerings.
A New Calculus for College Admissions: How Policy, Practice, and Perceptions of High School Math Education Limit Equitable Access to College—a new report by Just Equations, in partnership with National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC)—explores evolving views of the role that math plays i n college admission. Through a national survey and a series of interviews, the report examines four-year college and university admission policies on high school math course-taking, the often-unwritten practices that determine how those policies operate, and the perceptions that influence evaluations of students’ high school records.
Decisions about who gets admitted to college, especially to selective institutions, are the result of a complex mix of policy and practice, and math expectations are part of that mix. A New Calculus for College Admissions notes that regardless of whether calculus is necessary for a student’s college major, entrenched beliefs about calculus as a sign of rigor can play a significant role in admissions.
“As long as colleges and high schools still view calculus as a singular sign of academic status, students and families seeking entry to the most competitive campuses will continue to view the course as a down payment on their ticket to get in,” said Veronica Anderson, education expert and report author.
Since access to advanced math courses varies starkly by race and income, such admissions approaches reflect historical designs that valued exclusivity over inclusivity, according to a January report by NACAC and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. That report, Toward a More Equitable Future for Postsecondary Access—funded by Lumina Foundation—called upon higher education institutions to “reconcile exclusivity with equity” and “radically rethink” admission criteria.
“High schools and colleges have the power to broaden math options and expand opportunity for all students,” said David Hawkins, chief education and policy officer for NACAC. “As new math course options flourish at the college level, admission policies and practices need to evolve so high schools can modernize their math offerings without jeopardizing students’ chances of college admission.”
To support such efforts with respect to admission requirements, A New Calculus for College Admissions synthesizes key findings from a NACAC-led national survey of admissions officers. The survey confirmed that, contrary to conventional wisdom, Calculus is rarely required for university admission outside of specific majors, such as engineering, physical science, and math.
In fact, some selective institutions, most prominently the University of California, have made clear that non-traditional courses such as data science are not only accepted for admission but are considered advanced math courses. AP Statistics has the same weight as AP Calculus. However, the report highlights the mixed messages high school students often receive about math classes, leading many to pursue calculus to err on the safe side. Likewise, according to survey responses, even when admissions officers encourage courses other than calculus, applicants and high school counselors can be reluctant to give up calculus and the competitive edge they believe it imparts.
A New Calculus for College Admissions shares ways to build awareness of new math pathways and deepen conversations across campuses about aligning admissions requirements with 21st-century math. Strategies that higher education leaders, national associations, state agencies, and other funders can pursue include:
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