As more colleges make standardized admission tests optional, other factors may play a role in students being accepted, enrolling and completing a four-year degree. One of those criteria may include higher-level math courses such as calculus, typically taken during senior year of high school — but not all students have access to these courses.
Higher level math, including precalculus and calculus, can make a college application stand out, especially for students applying to STEM programs, said Paul Gray, president of the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics.
“I think some admissions officers look for precalculus or calculus courses on transcripts when high school students are applying to pursue certain majors in college or university studies,” Gray said. “For competitive universities, having precalculus or calculus on your transcript certainly boosts a student’s chances of being accepted.”
While not every student is going to pursue a STEM field, having the opportunity to take higher-level math courses, from precalculus to calculus or statistics to quantitative reasoning, leaves the door open for students who may want to start and try different fields in college. As Gray said, newer career paths including virtual reality and artificial intelligence are anchored in mathematics — and students who are nimble and familiar with the tenets of the subject, be it calculus or newer offshoots such as data science, are going to have more opportunities to study and pursue their fields.
“Higher-level mathematics beyond high school algebra and geometry will be important for students to participate in those careers, but it may not necessarily be the content we would currently find in a high school or college calculus course,” Gray said.
What’s of concern to Gray is the lack of access to any kind of higher-level mathematics for some students today, particularly those hoping to apply for and pursue a STEM major. Some schools may not have the resources to offer the courses or be able to provide avenues for students to pursue these classes. He calls this an equity issue.
“We know that in states like California or Texas, high schools that do not offer calculus tend to serve mostly Black, Indigenous or Hispanic students,” Gray said. “Couple that with the fact that Black, Indigenous and Hispanic folks are underrepresented in STEM fields right now, and we have a situation that perpetuates existing inequities.”
Gray added that students who don’t have access to these classes may then not pursue teaching roles in these subjects. He said it’s crucial that all students see themselves reflected in the professionals around them, including their teachers, so they have role models they can emulate.
“As the U.S. population becomes increasingly diverse, it becomes more critical that all students see people who look like them engaging in mathematics-rich careers,” Gray said. “That’s good for our country, our economy and the people living in our society.”