Should College Statistics Courses Substitute For Intermediate Algebra ?


By Pamela Burdman

Community college students who transfer to four-year universities as juniors should meet the minimum requirements for entering high schools students, shouldn’t they?

 While that doesn’t sound like a controversial proposition, it has become one in the realm of remedial mathematics where a move to redesign the community college math sequence is colliding with the expectations of four-year university admissions offices.Experiments at community colleges around the country to realign remedial math requirements to better prepare students for their intended majors and career pathways are yielding early success, raising questions about the long-standing assumption that intermediate algebra is essential for success in college. These experiments are especially salient because of the high proportion of community college students requiring remedial math courses and the low proportion who succeed in them. 

My new report, Changing Equations: How Community Colleges Are Re-Thinking College Readiness in Math, published by LearningWorks, highlights these experiments and the positive results to date. 

 Defying traditional assumptions, the colleges conducting these experiments are substituting statistics and quantitative reasoning for a second year of algebra in the case of students who are not pursuing majors in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). The reasoning is that most of intermediate algebra is designed to prepare students for pre-calculus and calculus, and is therefore not needed by students who don’t need to take calculus. Rather, they are more likely to need applied mathematical knowledge and skills to succeed in other disciplines.

 Early results are proving that reasoning sound, showing that students in the new pathways are doing better in college-level courses than students taking the traditional intermediate algebra curriculum.  In fact, they are achieving double to triple the success rate in college-level statistics in less time. 

 Proponents argue that the statistics- and quantitative reasoning-based pathways are just as rigorous as the algebra-based pathways, and far more relevant for most students’ college and career plans.  In fact, outside the STEM fields, there is little data to back up the long-standing assumption that intermediate algebra is necessary for a college-educated person. Research shows that only about 20 to 30 percent of workers with a Bachelor’s degree use it in their careers.

About a quarter of California’s 112 community colleges are trying these approaches, as are numerous colleges in at least a dozen other states.  But despite their promise, the experiments will be difficult to continue if four-year universities refuse to allow the sequences for incoming transfer students. 

 This is where it gets tricky, both for four-year universities and, ultimately, K-12 schools.  Take the University of California.  Under the state’s “A-G” requirements, incoming freshmen must have taken three years of math, including elementary and intermediate algebra (also known as Algebra 1 and 2).  But under the new experiments, a community college student who places into remedial math can pass a pre-statistics course instead of intermediate algebra and then go straight to the statistics course that UC accepts for transfer. 

 The only hitch is UC’s stipulation that the statistics class is accepted for transfer only if the prerequisite for the class is intermediate algebra. The experiments buck this assumption by proving that intermediate algebra is not a prerequisite in the sense that students don’t need it to succeed in statistics. 

 Given the high demand for seats at their campuses, and the perception that intermediate algebra represents a high bar for rigor, UC faculty setting admissions standards have little incentive to compromise by waiving the prerequisite. But their position runs directly counter to efforts to improve college completion by eliminating unnecessary barriers to student success.

 For one thing, the policy curtails the transfer prospects of students pursuing the alternative math pathways.  For another, it makes colleges wary of offering these pathways at all, so even students who are not planning to transfer may lose access to them. 

 These data are quite new, and there will be far more available in the next few years as efforts in California, Texas, Colorado, and other states proceed.  But if the early results hold and students can be successful in college taking statistics and quantitative reasoning instead of intermediate algebra, universities such as UC may start to find their positions indefensible. 

 And that points ultimately to questions about the Common Core standards:  If college math requirements begin to change, what happens to those standards, whose claim to fame is that they define academic readiness for college?

 Some observers think that the Common Core math standards will eventually move in the same direction of de-emphasizing intermediate algebra. Others say that high school is too soon to close off students’ options. They argue for keeping the current high school math requirements for all students, and allowing college students, who after all are adults, to opt out of STEM-oriented math requirements.

 So stay tuned.  The equations may be changing for quite some time. 

Pamela Burdman is  a nationally-recognized education policy analyst and former program officer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. She can be reached at

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