By John R Schrock
Professor Emeritus at Emporia State University
Last Wednesday, the Kansas Board of Regents’ vice president for academic affairs told board members that college algebra is designed to prepare students for calculus, so only 20 percent of majors require advanced-level math. According to the Kansas News Service, he told KBOR, “We’re sending students down a path that’s not practical, that’s not really needed, that’s not relevant to their field of study. So that’s something that doesn’t work very well.” As such, Regents consider balancing the math requirements with a student’s major. Many more could use statistics instead of algebra.
U.S. undergraduate enrollment has lost nearly 1.4 million students nationwide from pre-pandemic levels, and Kansas universities have suffered their share of the losses. Diluting college requirements appears to be another measure to encourage more high school students to enter college. KBOR dropped a specific physics or chemical science requirement back in 1997.
This job-centered mentality is wrong on many levels. First, nationwide, over 60 percent of students in public universities change majors at least once! Students have little prior direct experience to make a decision about which area to pursue. A range of general education courses in many areas means that far more than half change to an area that they had not previously considered.
The second reason all students should take algebra, even if they don’t choose a science major, is that it changes the way you think. Basic courses in mathematics and business mathematics are extensions of 1+1 = 2 simple mathematics. But the algebra A square + B square = C square gives you a new way to solve problems that you can’t solve with simple math. Even if you graduate in a field that doesn’t involve algebra—and you forget how to solve the problems—keep mental confidence that when you encounter such a problem, an algebraic solution is possible. It instills a confidence that is lacking if you have never taken the course.
Algebra is also a crucial skill for solving physical, chemical, and some biological problems. But if students can avoid it, those doors will close for students who are among the 60 percent who are changing majors, some who would have switched to those sciences.
does it matter? You bet it does! Students in East Asia begin algebra in fourth grade. Half of their students at their universities have STEM majors. Only 18% of US students major in STEM. China now ranks number one in the number of STEM majors in universities (2007), the number of STEM articles in scientific journals (2017), the number of international patents (2019), and the top 1 percent of top-cited STEM Articles worldwide (2022).
In the US, many states are watering down their educational standards. If Kansas puts algebra aside for non-science majors, they will follow California, which did just that last year. Other states are doing the same. We have undermined US science and science literacy for decades. The US now relies on foreign-born students coming to the US to maintain enrollment in science programs.
The National Foundation for American Policy published its report on “International Students in Science and Engineering” in August 2021. international students…. At US universities, international students make up 82% of full-time graduate students in petroleum engineering, 74% in electrical engineering, and 72% in computer and information sciences, 71% in economics and manufacturing engineering, 70% in statistics, 67% in economics, 61% in % Civil Engineering, 58% Mechanical Engineering and Agricultural Economics, 56% Mathematics and Applied Mathematics, 54% Chemical Engineering, 53% Metallurgical and Materials Engineering, 52% Materials Science and 50% in Pharmaceutical Sciences.”
The NFAB report continues, “At many U.S. universities, data shows that it would be difficult to sustain key graduate programs without international students.” (9,042 to 17,334), the annual number of full-time international students increased by 310% (10,930 to 44,786). From 1998 to 2019, the number of US electrical engineering graduates increased by only 12% (8,139 to 9,083), while the number of international electrical engineering graduates increased by 130% (11,469 to 26,343). These are shortage areas in the US. The NFAB report cites research showing that “international students are not crowding out at the graduate level, they are actually increasing domestic enrollments.” Without these international students, primarily from Asia, many US research universities would have to close academic faculties and research programs. Both the teaching staff and the researchers would be unemployed.
All of these fields require algebra. This upcoming KBOR decision only accelerates the devaluation of US education and increases our dependence on foreign students.