“Calculating the Odds” Surveys High School Counselors on the Messages, Overt and Covert, From Colleges About High School Math Coursetaking
BERKELEY, CALIF.— For decades, calculus has been the hallmark of intelligence and academic rigor used by selective colleges as a gatekeeper in admissions. The resulting fixation on calculus by high schools exacerbates education inequities and needlessly pressures many students to rush through secondary math curriculum.
Calculating the Odds: Counselor Views on Math Coursetaking and College Admissions—a new report by Just Equations, in partnership with National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC)—examines how high school counselors interpret admissions offices’ expectations, driving their advice to students that they maximize calculus opportunities.
This report is the second in a series examining preferences for calculus in the college admissions process. The first, A New Calculus for College Admissions, revealed that, even though colleges rarely require calculus for incoming students, many selective colleges still prefer that students have the course on their transcripts, significantly raising the stakes for students’ high school math enrollment decisions.
Through in-depth interviews with and surveys of high school counselors across the country, Calculating the Odds found that:
“Unfortunately, such patterns disincentivize schools from prioritizing other rigorous math courses that may be more engaging for students and better aligned with the interests of students going into fields such as social sciences and humanities,” noted Pamela Burdman, executive director of Just Equations and one of the report authors. “We need to align admissions requirements and counselor advice with the way math is actually used in the 21st century.”
FROM THE SURVEY
For this report, Just Equations partnered with NACAC to examine counselors’ perspectives on high school students’ math coursetaking options in the context of college admissions. The goal was to shed light on how counselors advise students about math course enrollment and college applications.
While 93 percent of high school counselors said calculus gives students an edge in admissions, only 53 percent of admissions officers in our prior study said the same.
Likewise, when asked whether not taking calculus in high school narrows students’ college options, 73 percent of high school counselors agreed or somewhat agreed, compared to just 34 percent of admissions officers.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR CHANGE
“Colleges should make math expectations clear to applicants by adopting transparent admissions policies and implementing them consistently,” said David Hawkins, chief education and policy officer for NACAC. “Until educators, students, and families clearly see a broader approach to math pathways from admission offices, they will continue to assume that calculus is required or preferred for admission.”
Colleges and universities should adopt clear admissions policies that are implemented consistently. Enhancing transparency around expectations and developing materials with up-to-date information can create clarity in conversations around admissions.
State education departments, school districts, high schools, and middle schools should expand math offerings to include rigorous and relevant options aligned with college majors and careers. Starting academic counseling as early as the transition to middle school may also prevent students from being tracked out of STEM. Finally, educators must attend to students’ mental health and well-being by minimizing the emphasis on acceleration.
About Calculating the Odds
The report was based on two surveys. The first was sent to 1,967 high school counselors across the country. Among the 323 responses, 232 came from counselors at private high schools and 67 from counselors at public high schools. The remainder were from charter or other schools. A second, similar survey was sent to independent counselors—consultants or advisors who are hired by families to support students with their college applications. Of the 605 individuals who were sent the survey, 70 responded.
We also conducted in-depth interviews with counselors at public and private high schools focused on competitive college admissions, as well as with independent counselors. There were 14 interviews in all, spanning multiple states, including California. These discussions provided a deeper understanding of admissions policies and practices that inform participants’ advice to students about advanced math coursetaking in high school. You can find a list of quotes from counselors here.
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.
The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), founded in 1937, is an organization of more than 25,000 professionals from around the world dedicated to serving students as they make choices about pursuing postsecondary education. NACAC’s mission is to empower college admission counseling professionals through education, advocacy, and community.
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