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Who needs college algebra? Kansas universities may rethink math requirements

An algebra problem
Photo illustration by Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
Some administrators are considering ending algebra requirements for some college degrees.

College algebra is a requirement at most universities, but one in three college students fails the course. The Kansas Board of Regents is exploring a new system that would align math requirements to a student's field of study.

WICHITA, Kansas — At most Kansas colleges and universities, students face required classes — or the proficiency tests to get out of them — to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Including college algebra.

It’s a long-held requirement and often daunting.

About one in three Kansas students fails college algebra the first time around. Some take it several times before they pass. Others get so frustrated that they drop out altogether. And that cuts into university graduation rates.

That’s one reason the board that oversees the state’s public universities wants to rethink math requirements.

“We’re sending the majority of students down the college algebra road, which is really not necessary,” said Daniel Archer, vice president of academic affairs for the Kansas Board of Regents. “It’s not practical. It’s not really needed. And it’s not relevant for their fields.”

College algebra, listed as a freshman-level math requirement at most major universities, is designed to prepare students for calculus. But only about 20% of majors require higher-level math.

Archer recommended to the Regents recently that Kansas consider a system where math requirements would align with a student’s major.

The approach, known as Math Pathways, does away with the assumption that all students need college algebra. Instead, it incorporates alternative requirements such as statistics and quantitative reasoning. Georgia State University adopted the approach along with other changes and it has boosted its graduation rate by five percentage points over the past seven years.

“You’re trying to base (course requirements) on the skills that are needed in that … professional career,” Archer said. “If you’re going to major in political science, you’d be far better suited to take a stats class.”

Over the next several months, the Kansas Board of Regents plans to put together an advisory group to explore Math Pathways. It’ll look at data from other university systems and get feedback from Kansas colleges about whether, and how quickly, the state might implement new requirements.

Doug Girod, chancellor of the University of Kansas, said it could be difficult to transform math requirements quickly because universities are busy with other initiatives, including a new general education framework and a system-wide review of programs and degrees.

“We just keep layering on project after project, and these are not one-and-dones,” Girod said. “As it stands today, we do not have the bandwidth to do everything.”

Regent Wint Winter said reforming math requirements should be a top priority as college enrollment continues to decline and higher education faces a budget crisis.

“It’s incumbent on us to be aware of all the roadblocks that are out there for students … reasons why they’re leaving, reasons why they’re not graduating,” Winter said. “So I would urge us all to … find ways to find the bandwidth to keep this moving along.”

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.