Math in CSU Admissions: Moving Forward with Evidence

The recent debate over California State University’s well-intended proposal to require an additional quantitative reasoning (QR) course for admission highlights the challenges of efforts to bolster mathematics preparation. And the CSU trustees’ recent decision to first conduct more extensive analyses bodes well for advancing equitable math opportunity.

For too long, math requirements have been used as a convenient filter to determine access to this school or admission to that program. Using academic coursework as an entry requirement sounds legitimate on its face. To avoid exacerbating inequities, however, such requirements must meet at least two conditions: (1) the topic is necessary for success in the program; and (2) the required courses are available to all students seeking to pursue higher education. Both need to be based on evidence.

In analyzing such evidence, one key is to differentiate between offering math and requiring it. Rich and rigorous math and QR offerings can benefit the vast majority of students, assuming they actually can access them. But math requirements can be problematic when only some students have a fair chance of meeting them, based on the opportunities they’ve had or the schools they’ve attended. If that is the case, the courses may merely be indicators of privilege.

As Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis noted at a recent CSU trustees meeting, there is no evidence that high school QR records are “the substantive difference over things like being able to sleep in a dorm room instead of sleeping in your car.” Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond similarly pressed CSU officials about whether QR is the “secret sauce” to higher education success.

Even if there is evidence that such courses substantively support success, mathematics opportunity entails striking an equitable balance between requirements and offerings. It means erecting only those requirements that all students have a reasonable shot at meeting — as opposed to those that disadvantage some students based on the school they attend, which too often corresponds to race and income. QR courses should be used to broaden, not limit, students’ horizons.

This week, CSU took an important step toward getting that balance right. The trustees’ decision to delay their final action on the proposed admissions change for two years, though seemingly a minor procedural matter, is essential to ensuring math opportunity.

First, some background: The proposed change would have supplemented the existing requirement of three years of high school math with an additional year of mathematics or QR. Now, CSU has committed to studying the proposal’s impacts before a final vote in early 2022. This would still allow the proposal to be implemented by 2027, as originally designed.

The new timeline also could allow the proposal’s virtues to emerge. In particular, CSU had the foresight to broaden its definition of QR to encompass data science, computer science, laboratory science, and even personal finance — not just traditional fare like precalculus.

This aligns with policies at CSU and elsewhere to diversify the set of courses that freshmen can take to fulfill general education QR requirements. Since college students can develop quantitative literacy in ways that are relevant to their personal and professional interests, diversifying admissions requirements makes all the sense in the world. And CSU would be a leader among universities in doing this so explicitly.

What we need to understand better is whether the additional courses, especially the non-traditional mathematics offerings, are truly available to high school students. The fact that about a third of high schools still don’t align their graduation requirements with the three years of math currently required for CSU admission highlights how far high schools would need to move to ensure that the proposal wouldn’t exacerbate inequities.

The research CSU plans to commission can — and — must shed light on several related matters:

  • Eligibility. Whether the proposal would inadvertently exacerbate equity gaps, e.g., because students at some schools lack access to the newly required additional course, or can access only traditional math and science courses, not the newly emphasized QR courses.

Though CSU rightly has proposed offering waivers to students whose schools don’t offer the requisite courses, doing so would do nothing to improve the prospects for those students. If rigorous QR courses in fact are key to college success, waivers aren’t a substitute for expanding access to them.

Existing evidence suggests that much work remains. A study commissioned by Just Equations and our partners, the Campaign for College Opportunity and the Education Trust-West, found that, based on data for the class of 2015, eligibility rates for African-American and Latinx students would have suffered dramatically if the requirement had been in place at that time.

Replicating that study (rather than sweeping it under the rug, as unfortunately happened last year) would see whether the state is making progress. Will students in the class of 2020, or 2022, or 2027 have more equitable access to meeting the proposed requirement?

The stakes are great. Research evidence will help answer such questions — and allow the trustees to make better decisions about whether, how, and under what conditions, to move forward.

As Executive Vice Chancellor Loren Blanchard noted at the trustees’ meeting, “We simply cannot accept that the disparities that exist today must be the destiny of [our] students.”

is an expert on college access, readiness, and success and founder of Just Equations — a project to re-conceptualize the role of mathematics in education equity

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