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STEM Opportunities in California’s New Era of Student Success

As initiatives to expand college math course offerings beyond the traditional algebra-intensive pathway have gained attention over the past decade, questions have persisted about how the presence of expanded pathways would influence equitable opportunities in STEM. The chief concern has been that the availability of new options such as statistics could unintentionally track students—especially students of color—with STEM potential out of science and technology fields (which require a foundation in algebra-intensive math), due to implicit bias or other structural inequities. 

Though this claim is sometimes a red herring, given that the traditional math sequences have served relatively few students well, the valid fear of creating an alternate “separate but equal” route through math provides an important caution: Don’t use new math pathways to exacerbate inequity in STEM. Rather, use the existence of more options to draw more students into the math courses that match their interests and aspirations, which includes engaging more historically excluded groups in STEM fields. It also means ensuring that students have access to college-level courses.* 

Recent research about the implementation of California’s law to limit remedial math offerings in community colleges provides some positive signs that redesigned postsecondary pathways support that goal. At the same time, it underscores gaps in implementation of the current law that have led California’s community college system and equity advocates to join forces in calling for an update.

In its report Community College Math in California’s New Era of Student Access, the Public Policy Institute of California shared several encouraging findings: 

  1. More STEM-interested students are taking the right courses. In 2019, 57 percent of transfer-bound students pursuing business or STEM** majors started in a college-level course such as precalculus, calculus, trigonometry or college algebra, compared with only 38 percent the year before. An additional 27 percent took college-level statistics—which can be required for some STEM disciplines—as compared with just 15 percent the prior year. 
  2. These students were also more likely to start their math sequence with a calculus course (traditional or applied calculus), a gatekeeper to the majority of STEM majors. At some schools, “the number of calculus sections and above doubled or tripled,” the authors noted. 
  3. As a result of those shifts, transfer-intending STEM students were successfully completing calculus at higher rates. The rate of successful calculus completion by the following fall for students in the fall 2019 cohort was 22 percent higher than among fall 2018 students. 
  4. At the same time, more students were pursuing STEM, so more students benefited from these gains. The proportion of students seeking to major in business or STEM had risen from 31 percent of first-time transfer-seeking students in 2017 to 36 percent of first-time students in fall 2019, PPIC found. (The report did not share STEM enrollment trends by race/ethnicity.) 

Even so, concerns remain, as highlighted by PPIC: 

  1. Though far more students (84 percent) pursuing STEM majors started in a college-level course, almost a third of those students are still not starting in a college-level course that leads to calculus. Among the 27 percent of STEM-intending students who took another course, such as statistics, it is not clear for how many the course met a requirement for their intended degree. “Some colleges have continued to institute a hard requirement, or strong recommendation” that students in STEM paths take remedial courses, noted PPIC. Contrary to research showing that prerequisite remedial sequences do not boost student success, the authors observed “a strong belief among a subset of instructors that such courses are necessary for students who”—they believe—“lack the math skills to progress through rigorous higher-level math sequences.” Placement in remedial courses can interfere with degree completion, and—as recently noted by The Institute for College Access and Success—increase the cost for those who do persist to a degree.
  2. Traditionally excluded students, including Black and Latinx students, were more likely to be enrolled in these remedial courses, the PPIC study found. As a result, Black and Latinx students were less likely to have completed a transfer-level course a year after beginning their math sequence, a finding that is consistent with multiple studies tying remedial enrollments to lower completion rates.
  3. Corequisites—a form of concurrent support that allows students to refresh their math skills while simultaneously enrolled in a college-level course—have expanded greatly in California colleges in recent years. However, corequisites are less available to students enrolling in a STEM math course than to students enrolling in statistics. 

While 92 of the state’s 116 colleges offered corequisite support for entry-level statistics classes, students taking college algebra could access a corequisite at only 48 colleges, with 35 offering corequisites in trigonometry, 26 for applied calculus, and 25 for precalculus. No corequisites for traditional calculus were found. Since some colleges require students to take two or more prerequisites (e.g. college algebra, trigonometry, and precalculus) before calculus, the length of those pathways combined with the absence of corequisite options creates a barrier to STEM entry. 

The PPIC findings leave little doubt that laws such as California’s are a cornerstone of postsecondary student success strategies. Refining the law to support further gains should be a no-brainer. 

*The term “college level” is used here to refer to courses that confer credit toward a two-year degree and also toward a four-year degree at a California public university. California colleges refer to these courses as “transfer-level” courses. Courses that do not confer credit toward a four-year degree are referred to as “remedial” courses here.  

**California colleges tend to group business courses, which require applied calculus, together with STEM courses, which require traditional calculus. Subsequently, the term “STEM” is used as shorthand for business and STEM. 

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