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CSU takes algebra out of the equation for non-math and science majors

Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA on April 20, 2010. John Sawka, math professor, teaching a calculus class.
Barbara Kinney/Flickr
Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA on April 20, 2010. John Sawka, math professor, teaching a calculus class.

After months of deliberation California State University officials say they’re sending an executive order to their campuses next month to eliminate a math requirement for entering students who are not pursuing math or science related careers.

“For students entering the Fall 2018 and beyond, that notion of, 'you must complete the prerequisite of intermediate algebra,' will be gone,” said Alison Wrynn, associate dean for academic programs for the 23 campus California State University.

The university system’s math requirements in its A-G admissions policies will not change, she said, what has been eliminated is the requirement of a prerequisite of intermediate algebra for all CSU general education math courses.

The change will apply to incoming freshmen and students transferring from California community college campuses. Some majors, like business, will continue to have an algebra requirement for admission to CSU.

The change, in the works since March of this year, has been in collaboration with Cal State faculty. It’s part of a major overhaul to the classes California’s public colleges and universities require to take for completion of community college studies and transfer to a four-year university.

The California State University is the largest recipient of state community college transfer students. In the fall of 2016, Cal State’s 23 campuses accepted 49,737 transfer students from California community colleges.

In the same semester, the University of California accepted 17,829 students as transfers from community colleges.

Some pilot programs at community college campuses have created alternative math class sequences that include statistics, for example, that are then accepted by some Cal State campuses as a math requirement.

“There are some students who are very successful students in many ways and intelligent students who for various reasons struggle with abstract mathematics like algebra,” said Pamela Burdman, who’s studied this issue as an independent policy analyst.

The algebra requirement has been hotly debated on college campuses. Some community college faculty want to keep the algebra requirement because they feel it teaches students needed skills and opens doors to science careers.

“Our faculty are engaged in the conversation," said Julie Bruno, president of the academic senate for California Community Colleges. "They are having very deep and significant conversations, especially locally at our colleges around these issues. I think that they are trying to do what is in the best interest of their students and remove barriers to completion for our students and at the same time ensure that they are academically prepared."

A growing number of college officials believe that requiring students who do not want to pursue math or science related careers to take an algebra class acts as a barrier to earning a college degree.

“I really struggled a lot with that math requirement when I was a super-senior at Pasadena City College,” said Javier Cabral. About five years ago, Cabral was majoring in journalism and couldn’t pass a required algebra course after taking it seven times.

“Because I couldn’t pass this math class, I didn’t transfer anywhere, [and] I ended up dropping out – happily dropping out,” he said. Happily, because he’s since been writing for national and regional magazines even though he didn’t go on to earn his bachelor’s degree. Other students in the same situation at the time, he said, abandoned their career goals.

Cal State said it’s sending out the executive order, which has been in the works, to its campuses and the state’s community colleges next month so administrators have enough time to create alternative math class sequences that fulfill the university’s math requirements.

The change comes weeks after the chancellor of California’s community colleges proposed to get rid of the algebra requirement for non-science and math majors at its 113 campuses.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly said the proposal was in the works since 2015 and that CSU worked with community colleges on the change. KPCC regrets the errors.