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It’s no secret that there are gatekeepers and inequities to college admission. Important initiatives to end legacy admissions, revolutionize the way students apply to college and nix use of the SAT are just some recent efforts to address the long-standing barriers to higher education that face Black, Latinx, Indigenous and low-income students. But a major source of stratification in college admission that has received far less attention is the practice of weighing applicants’ transcripts using vague guidelines about “rigor.”

Such guidelines are especially problematic when they reinforce outdated and exclusionary stereotypes of academic ability. And nowhere is this problem more prevalent than when it comes to high school math course taking, where some students attend schools that don’t offer advanced math courses such as calculus, and others have the opportunity to race through the math curriculum, taking multiple flavors of calculus and beyond.

Outside of STEM majors, few colleges treat calculus as a hard requirement, but when students seek to attend selective colleges, high school counselors typically advise them that colleges expect to see calculus on their transcripts. That is one of the conclusions of our new report, “Calculating the Odds: Counselor Views on Math Coursetaking and College Admission,” based on surveys of hundreds of counselors. Counselors told us that opaque admissions guidelines have sent secondary students racing to achieve a transcript that displays mastery of the highest-level courses available.

That means counselors feel obligated to encourage their students to take calculus, or even more advanced math, to remain competitive in admissions, even if other rigorous courses such as statistics may be far more relevant to their interests and aspirations. The practice is out of step with the mathematics community’s increasing recognition that there are multiple ways for students to demonstrate mastery.

“The fixation on calculus in college admissions offices is way out of line not only with what their own respective institutions are advising to students once they enroll (i.e., many more students could use statistics than calculus) but is also out of touch with 21st-century workplace/industry trends, which demonstrably show that statistics is at least as useful—and in many instances is actually more useful—than calculus,” noted one counselor surveyed in “Calculating the Odds.”

A whopping 93 percent of high school counselors surveyed said that calculus raises students’ college prospects. In Just Equations and NACAC’s prior report in this research series, admissions officers were asked the same question. In comparison, only 53 percent of them said calculus gives students an edge in admissions.

“Calculus is viewed as a gatekeeper course by many colleges,” another high school counselor said. “I don’t believe this should be the case, based on research and student outcomes, but I don’t want to disadvantage my students by advising them otherwise.”

Selective colleges’ fixation on exclusivity has helped secure calculus’s place in admissions as a hallmark of intelligence and rigor, especially as applications get more and more competitive. This preoccupation with selectivity influences the entire college landscape, leaving students at a disadvantage if they lack access to advanced math at their school or have been tracked out of calculus pathways as early as middle school.

The result is significant stratification by race and income, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In 2019, 16 percent of high school grads—roughly half a million students—had calculus on their transcripts. But the course was taken by 46 percent of Asian American students and 18 percent of white students versus just 6 percent of Black students and 9 percent of Latinx students. And students from the highest-income quartile of high schools were almost three times as likely to take the course as students from the bottom half of high schools by income.

Leveling the playing field is not about elevating any math course over another or lowering standards. It’s about shifting the paradigm in admissions to bring math guidelines into the 21st century. Here’s what “Calculating the Odds” recommends colleges and universities take into consideration as they undertake these paradigm-shifting conversations:

  1. Aligning math requirements with students’ intended career path. A history major who will never use calculus should not be punished in admissions for having a far more relevant statistics course on their transcript. Resources such as the Charles A. Dana Center can help guide the alignment of math sequences to better match students’ desired careers. Students interested in pursuing a career in STEM can still focus on calculus, while others can pursue data science or statistics.
  2. Creating clear and transparent guidelines: As “Calculating the Odds” found over and over again, opaque guidelines to “maximize what’s available” cause confusion and punish students who lack access to advanced courses.
  3. Implementing policies consistently: Until policies are implemented consistently when weighing college applications, counselors, teachers and families won’t trust that guidelines have truly changed. Thorough training for readers and consistent implementation of guidelines during applicant screenings would help end counselors’ ongoing guessing game and slow pressure for students to accelerate to calculus.

Creating this change will look different from program to program and cannot be done in the admissions office alone. That’s why it’s critical for involvement from leaders across college campuses to shape these new guidelines. It’s time for math faculty members, admissions officers and department heads to come together and start these discussions.

Admissions offices have the power to end the use of calculus as a gatekeeper and create change that would reverberate through the K-12 math curriculum, creating a math experience for students that is not only more practical for their real-life pursuits, but that opens the door to courses that build joy and confidence in the subject. While we must continue the work on other initiatives to make admissions more equitable across the board, we cannot afford to ignore these vague admissions guidelines any longer.

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