Press Release

February 2023

New Report: Analysis of Calculus prerequisites across CSU system reveals lengthy sequences

Staying the Course examines the inconsistencies across California State Universities’ Calculus prerequisite sequences

BERKELEY, Calif. — Cultivating a talented and diverse STEM workforce requires addressing issues of attrition in students’ pathways to STEM, attrition that disproportionately affects women and minoritized students. It is no secret that calculus often acts as a stumbling block, rather than a stepping stone, on that very path. Each year, nearly 1 million students attempt a college calculus or precalculus course without success, and many abandon their STEM ambitions as a result. Existing research has already shed light on the barriers created by remedial courses, but how might prerequisite sequences be affecting student attrition in STEM as well?

Addressing this issue is especially relevant in the wake of the COVID-19 disruptions that compromised students’ exposure to advanced math in high school. 

Staying the Course: Examining College Students’ Paths to Calculus, a new report by Just Equations, analyzes how the California State University (CSU) system structures its Calculus prerequisite sequences across 23 campuses and the impact of these courses on student attrition.

Through an in-depth analysis of CSU prerequisite sequences and interviews with math leaders at eight CSU campuses, Staying the Course uncovered four themes:

  • Students face long on-ramps to Calculus, with many taking two or more prerequisites before reaching the course. One campus requires the least prepared students to take four semesters of math before they get to Calculus.
  • Some campuses offer a confusing number of paths, with little transparency about the required or optimal routes to Calculus. As a result, students may make less-than-optimal choices that require extra time, money, and resources. 
  • Although remedial placement tests have been eliminated, there is a heavy reliance on placement testing. A majority of CSU campuses emphasize standardized placement tests for most students seeking to take Calculus.
  • There is a large range of support strategies and structures being used across the CSU landscape.

“We know from existing research that remedial courses, especially lengthy sequences, are linked with reduced student success and exponential attrition. It is time we investigate Calculus prerequisites for the same reason,” said Marcelo Almora Rios, the lead author of the report. “If we want to increase diversity in STEM fields, we must question practices potentially rooted in deficit perspectives of students.”

Staying the Course calls for the following actions:

  • Further research to ensure that campuses’ prerequisite approaches are effective in promoting success in Calculus and in STEM fields.
  • Transparency from campuses about the pathways to Calculus and the replacement of lengthy sequences with just-in-time support to the extent possible. 
  • Making success in STEM fields a component of official efforts to improve the completion of general education mathematics.


About Staying the Course:

The report focuses on the 23-campus CSU system, with our research including an analysis of math department websites and 2022-2023 course catalogs from all 23 CSU campuses, a review of relevant research literature, and interviews with math leaders from eight CSU campuses. Data was collected during June and July 2022. 

In some cases, the examination built on an earlier Just Equations report, Crossing Signals: What College Websites Tell Students About Taking Mathematics, which analyzed the math coursetaking guidance provided to students via websites within the California Community Colleges and CSU systems. The reviews included only publicly accessible information, not information accessible solely via password-protected portals. 

About Just Equations

Just Equations reconceptualizes the role of mathematics in ensuring education equity for students. An independent resource on the equity dimensions of math education in the transition from high school to college, Just Equations advances evidence-based strategies to ensure that math policies give all students the quantitative foundation they need to succeed in college and beyond.

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