Drop algebra requirement for non-STEM majors, California community colleges chief says

The chancellor of the California Community Colleges system says intermediate algebra should no longer be required to earn an associate degree — unless students are in the fields of science, technology, engineering or math.

Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley, who heads the nation’s largest community college system of 114 campuses, told The Times that intermediate algebra is seen as a major barrier for students of color, preventing too many from completing degrees. About three-fourths of those who transfer to four-year universities are non-STEM majors, he said, who should be able to demonstrate quantitative reasoning skills by taking statistics or other math courses more applicable to their fields.

“College-level algebra is probably the greatest barrier for students — particularly first-generation students, students of color — obtaining a credential,” he said. “If we know we're disadvantaging large swaths of students who we need in the workforce, we have to question why. And is algebra really the only means we have to determine whether a student is going to be successful in their life?

“I think there's a growing body of evidence and advocates that say 'no' — that there are more relevant, just as rigorous, math pathways that we feel students should have the ability to take,” he said.

Debate over algebra requirements has escalated in recent years. Failure to complete intermediate algebra has kept tens of thousands of California community college students in limbo each year, sparking contentious criticism of the one-size-fits-all math requirement in the state and much of the nation.

California State University administrators have been open to exploring alternative math pathways; they are consulting with faculty to determine which disciplines need to continue requiring intermediate algebra and which could be more flexible.

Oakley made the comments in an interview about a report released Monday that sets ambitious goals to improve student success.

The report by the Foundation for California Community Colleges noted that the state will need 1.1 million more workers with bachelor’s degrees by 2030 — but that only 48% of the system’s students earned a certificate or associate degree or transferred to a four-year university within six years.

“This anemic completion rate is a troubling sign for the overall health of California’s higher education and workforce development system,” the report said.

The report’s goals include:

  • A 35% increase in the number of students who transfer annually to a Cal State or University of California campus.
  • A 20% increase in the number of students who earn an associate degree, credential or certificate. The state will need 2.4 million more skilled workers by 2024, the report said.
  • A reduction in racial and geographical achievement gaps in five years and complete elimination in 10 years. The report noted that program completion rates vary widely: 65% for Asians, 54% for whites, 41% for Latinos and 35% for African Americans.
  • A decrease in the number of average units students earn for their associate degrees from 87 to 79. Most degrees require 60 units, suggesting students are not being efficiently guided in their program paths and may be spending more money and time than needed.

Proposals include eliminating math and English placement tests for 12th-graders who meet eligibility requirements for admission to the Cal State and UC systems (completing a list of prescribed courses with acceptable grades, for instance). Placement tests are coming under fire for inaccurately gauging college readiness, sending too many students into remediation who could succeed in college-level courses with adequate support.

The report also recommends intentional recruiting by community colleges of more working-age adults — not just high school seniors — to help boost qualifications for a broader range of higher-paying jobs.

A full plan of action will be developed by the college system and presented to the Board of Governors in the fall. But the report drew wide praise at the governors meeting Monday in Sacramento. Hans Johnson, director of the Public Policy Institute of California’s Higher Education Center, said achievement of its goals would mark a milestone in state efforts to improve outcomes for California’s underserved students.

“We have an army of faculty and staff who come to work every day wanting to improve the lives of people,” Oakley said at the meeting. “We need to empower them to do that more … and to do it on steroids because that’s what our state needs from us.”

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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