August 31, 2023
Math and College Admissions

How Math Opportunity Can Promote Diversity and Equity in Higher Education

Pamela Burdman
Melodie Baker
How Math Opportunity Can Promote Diversity and Equity in Higher Education

Education is often thought of as the world’s great equalizer. A strong educational foundation can pave the way for the next generation of thinkers and doers. It can elevate a student out of generational poverty. It can be a launching pad for innovation and new ideas.

But, for many, math class is the opposite. Too often, it is the great divider. Numerous studies show a massive disparity between White and Asian students on the one hand and Black, Latinx, and other underrepresented students when it comes to taking higher-level math courses that could help a student stand out to college admissions officers.

With affirmative action banned by the U.S. Supreme Court, educational leaders cannot afford to ignore these injustices. In fact, they need to consider how mathematics education can help resolve the historical exclusion and unequal placement of underrepresented students in higher education.

As colleges and universities work to create racially inclusive student bodies without race-conscious admissions practices, the outsize role that mathematics plays in restricting college access needs more attention. We need to make sure that access to college as well as to STEM careers is driven by students’ potential, not by their race or other background characteristics. 

That’s the point of a brief that we wrote as part of a series released by the Campaign for College Opportunity.

The series, part of the Campaign’s Affirming Equity, Ensuring Inclusion and Empowering Action initiative, elevates practices that support college preparation, admission, affordability, and success for Black, Latinx, Asian American, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, and American Indian/Alaska Native students in an effort to prevent American institutions from returning to an era of exclusion in higher education. 

Just 6 percent of Black high school students and 9 percent of Latinx students earned credit in calculus, compared with 18 percent of White students, according to data from the National Center for Educational Statistics. Similarly, students who attend schools in the highest-income quartile nationwide are three times more likely to take calculus as those in the bottom half.

How students are advised and placed into math courses is one reason for those disparities. Just Equations’ report Integral Voices: Examining Math Experiences of Underrepresented Students surveyed California students about their high school math courses and found that 41 percent of Black students were recommended for calculus, compared with 50 percent of White students and 61 percent of Asian students. And more than a third of Black students weren’t recommended for any advanced math course at all. 

This matters because—as Just Equations revealed in A New Calculus for College Admissions: How Policy, Practice, and Perceptions of High School Math Education Limit Equitable Access to Collegeadmissions officers, especially those at selective institutions, view calculus as the gold standard and expect to see it on students’ transcripts, even though, technically, few institutions actually require the course. 

Of the students surveyed for Integral Voices, 70 percent said they believed calculus was the course most likely to make them appear competitive to admissions officers. However, students whose parents did not attend college were much less likely to say so than those whose parents did.

The result is a major gap in the potential for diverse student bodies at higher education institutions as well as in STEM fields post-graduation. It also means there’s a lot of opportunity for improvement to make math an equalizer for the next generation of students. 

Finding greater equity through math opportunity

There are several avenues to reducing math disparities and providing students with equitable access to rigorous math courses, some of which are already playing out in schools and universities around the country.

Broadening math requirements. While calculus is important for certain STEM majors, such as engineering and physics, other advanced math options, including statistics and data science, may align better with some students’ college and career goals. Expanding postsecondary admissions requirements to include higher-level math coursework beyond traditional math expectations can open doors for promising students who did not have access to calculus in high school or who are interested in non-STEM majors. 

Increasing college admissions transparency. Colleges and universities need to be clear about their admissions policies and expectations. Postsecondary institutions should explicitly state how many years of math are expected and which courses are necessary for specific degree programs. Students should know exactly what courses they need, rather than assuming that calculus is the gold standard everywhere. 

Examining high school math credits in context. Advancing diversity and equity in college admissions means strategically recruiting in diverse settings and taking into account that not all high schools offer calculus and other high-level math courses needed to enter STEM-degree programs at certain higher ed institutions. Evaluating students in the context of the math learning experiences available to them can reduce barriers for students in under-resourced communities, making college opportunities available to promising students. 

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