Are you a Cal State student? Here are some math requirement changes that might help you graduate sooner

A new Cal State policy allows students to complete their general math courses without a strict intermediate algebra prerequisite.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
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Cal State no longer will require all its general education math courses to have a strict intermediate algebra prerequisite — a policy that has long stymied students trying to transfer from community colleges and freshmen forced to prove they know how to factor trinomials, graph exponential functions and apply other abstract concepts they might rarely use in everyday life.

Under the new policy, which goes into effect next fall, students will be able to complete Cal State’s general math/quantitative reasoning requirement without intermediate algebra by enrolling in courses such as personal finance, game theory, statistics and computer science.

The change will give students more flexibility in completing their bachelor degrees, officials said. And those who aren’t math and science majors might find real-life problem-solving more engaging and more immediately useful for understanding political polls, analyzing sports data or evaluating research methodology.


“The goal is that we will have prerequisites for each course that are actually related to the skills students need to be successful in that course,” said Christine Mallon, assistant vice chancellor of academic programs and faculty development. “We’re not making students wait until they finish a remedial course. Depending on the course, we can brush up or develop skills as the student is in the course learning.”

Cal State’s revised general education policy also includes a number of other changes designed to remove hurdles in fulfilling graduation requirements. A student majoring in political science who takes an introduction to political science course, for example, will be able to “double count” the course to fulfill the requirements of both the major and the social science general education.

The changes, announced late Wednesday in a memo to campus presidents from Chancellor Timothy P. White, are part of an ongoing effort at the nation’s largest public university system to double its four-year graduation rate to 40% by 2025.

Earlier this month, a separate executive order dropped placement exams in math and English as well as the noncredit remedial courses that thousands of freshmen have been required to take each fall before they are allowed to enroll in courses that count toward their degrees.

Educators have been hotly debating the gold standard requirement of intermediate algebra, more commonly known in high schools as Algebra II. For decades, American high school and college math curriculum has been based on two years of algebra and a year of geometry — a track that prepares the way for students to take calculus.

The intermediate algebra requirement has been a sticking point at the California Community Colleges, where tens of thousands of students each year who fail to fulfill it find themselves unable to move on to a four-year university like Cal State.


Attempts to solve the problem with remedial help and additional tutoring largely have failed. And radically different approaches — focusing on such topics as statistics, computer science and data analysis — have sometimes been criticized as lacking in rigor.

Read more: The politics of math: Is algebra necessary to obtain a college degree? »

Pierce College and College of the Canyons are among the community colleges that have experimented with courses in statistics and data analysis designed for non-math and science majors, developed by the Carnegie Foundation and the California Acceleration Project. Their aim is to help students develop college-level quantitative reasoning without having to meet a traditional math requirement.

At Cal State, administrators have tested the Carnegie Foundation’s Statway program and increasingly have been open to alternative math approaches. Some faculty have felt they’ve been too open to them. In 2015, the math chairs of Cal State’s 23 campuses released a resolution criticizing the statistics approach. The Academic Senate formed a task force that year to review existing math requirements and get a better understanding of how to adopt alternatives for non-STEM majors. The new policies were instituted after extensive discussion with faculty, administrators said.

The new general education policy does not affect requirements for majors, and faculty will be responsible for determining the relevant prerequisites for math and quantitative reasoning courses. Administrators said they will be working with math faculty in the coming year to reevaluate course offerings and determine which courses still might need an intermediate algebra prerequisite. Math departments also will be looking into ways to expand the range of courses that might satisfy the revised requirements.

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