In a report released this month, National Association for College Admission Counseling co-authored a report with Just Equations, an organization that uses evidence-based strategies to inform math policies used in high schools and college admissions, asked this question. Should your teen take calculus? Admissions says “yes” but they don’t know why.
“Calculus is the gold standard that people in this business use as a shortcut.”
– dean of admissions at a selective, private university
The full report is worth your time if your teen is aiming for a highly competitive university in a STEM field. If that’s your target, your teen absolutely needs to take Calculus. The report was conducted out of the question surrounding the rest of students. What about students who are aiming for highly competitive universities in NON-STEM fields? Why do they need calculus?
I’ve written extensively about low graduation rates and how the real challenge Homeschooling for College Credit families face is not getting their teens into college, rather getting them out. Graduation rates are so incredibly low, that even the most elite institutions with the brightest of the bright are only graduating about 85% of their students (after 6 years).
Popular admissions propaganda adopts the admissions norms and intense competitiveness of these few elite schools and generalizes it to the rest of the high school students. Homeschooling parents feel pressure or experience confusion about what regular students should study in order to earn degrees from their in-state colleges and universities. In other words, we want to hold ALL teens to the Ivy League standards, even when we intend to enroll our teens in community colleges and public universities without these requirements. Aim lower? No. My advice is to aim better.
As you’ll see in the excerpts from the report, even students who took Calculus or AP Calculus (to earn elite admissions) didn’t get college credit for it or place into higher math. The singular purpose, for most of these students, is admissions… not credit.
If your teen’s college will award credit for AP exams, will award credit or dual enrollment, or will award credit for CLEP exams, you have a significant advantage. Your teen’s high school program can refocus away from admissions onto the real challenge: graduation. (more on that later)
Access to Calculus
“The race to calculus—a path steeped in education inequity—starts in middle school… A student who takes the standard route of algebra in ninth grade, geometry as a sophomore, and Algebra II as a junior won’t make it to calculus by 12th grade. Only students who pursue accelerated pathways and study algebra in seventh or eighth grade can reach calculus by their senior year—unless they take summer classes, or their school offers compressed math during the regular school year…
A majority (29) of states’ default high school math requirements did not put students on track to be eligible for admission to a public university in the state (Achieve, 2020). In addition, according to a 2021 study, 29 percent of high schools in the country don’t offer the courses required for admission to STEM disciplines at their state’s public flagship universities.” (emphasis mine)
Nevertheless, taking calculus is considered a priority by many families who want to put their teens in the sweet spot for competitive college admissions. For decades, the course has been the highest math course offered at many high schools, reinforcing perceptions that calculus is a must-have for those seeking admission to competitive colleges.
What About Advanced Placement & College Credit?
“A perceived advantage of taking calculus, especially AP Calculus, is an improved chance of getting admitted to highly competitive colleges.. This is especially true for students who take AP Calculus but don’t ultimately earn college credit based on an AP exam score, according to surveys of students…Even doing well in AP Calculus doesn’t guarantee or predict advanced math standing in college. Estimates are that fewer than 20 percent of students who took it go straight to Calculus II in college. Another 30
percent take Calculus I, a repeat of the AP course.”
Only 50 percent of all high schools offer calculus
“If a student expresses interest in certain majors—
business, finance, computer science, engineering—
then it is recommended they take calculus or the
most advanced level math offered at their high
school. For any other majors, we tell students and
influencers that a student should take a college
preparatory curriculum, and if they’re on track to
take advanced math courses, they should do so.”
82 percent of high school students have access to AP Calculus
What Do Math Professors Say?
“For years, leading math organizations have cautioned against this pattern [accelerated math sequence that includes calculus in high school]. Not all students have the opportunity to accelerate through mathematics. Many who do miss out on foundational math learning and encounter problems later. Even many students who successfully complete high school calculus end up taking calculus
again—or even a lower-level math course—when they get to college (Bressoud, 2020). Plus, the emphasis on calculus, a course that has changed little in 50 years, can crowd out the teaching of statistics and data science, subjects that are likely more meaningful for many students’ lives and career goals.”
- 12% of all 4-year colleges require 2 years of math to meet admissions requirements.
- 50% of all 4-year colleges require 3 years of math to meet admissions requirements.
- 38% of all 4-year colleges require 4 years of math to meet admissions requirements.
- 20% of all 4-year colleges recommend Calculus for STEM applicants.
The traditional high school math sequence:
- Algebra I
- Algebra II
Accelerated high school math sequence:
- Algebra II
- AP Calculus
Lazy Gatekeepers for Non-STEM
“Admissions officers do need factors to distinguish among tens of thousands of applicants. Calculus is an easy answer to a complicated question. Institutions are looking for a simple gatekeeper. We are looking for ways to determine excellent and extraordinary students.”
“Parents and students reverse engineer admissions outcomes. If a student without AP Calculus was denied, they attribute the reason to calculus.”
Admissions professionals noted that they need more information from those with subject-matter expertise.
“I don’t think admissions officers know a lot about what’s even taught. … I’m not trained in math. I don’t know what is easier or not. If they’re taking calculus because they think we want to see it and we’re saying it’s the most rigorous course
and reacting that way, then it’ll just continue. The question is, is calculus still a fundamental course that students need for college?”
“Statistics and environmental science have always been interpreted as not as rigorous. We need something to tell us if that’s true.”
At some colleges, that may require bringing more faculty into decisions about admissions policy. Faculty are not always involved in setting the standards. Committees composed of faculty and admissions staff make these determinations at only 40 percent of the schools that participated in the study. Another 23 percent reported that admissions staff alone decide math requirements.
Of the admissions officers interviewed for this report, only 2 reported that training for permanent and seasonal staff who review applications addresses preferences for calculus. More often, training presentations focus on rigor and process, they said.
HS4CC Advice: Focus on the Degree Requirements
Math in College
High school math, at every level, is worth high school credit. But college maths, at 100 level or higher, are worth college credit. If your teen is taking high school calculus, their time could be spent so much more wisely taking maths worth college credit!
The high school sequence outlined above is actually harder (higher) than the math required for most college degrees. Again, we’re nota talking about STEM majors, because STEM majors make up only 18% of all majors! We’re talking about the 82% of students who will NEVER need calculus in college.
As we learned above, if your teen is aiming for admission into an elite college as a STEM major, then yes, they need calculus. Let’s talk about everyone else.
Everyone else can opt-out of the craziness. Here are some truths:
- Most non-STEM majors don’t have math requirements (82% of all degrees). Their General Education requirement will have some type of math, but you can shop around for lower math colleges. (General Education requirements are a college’s core requirements that must be met by everyone at the college whether you’re studying Ceramics or Engineering or Music or Chemistry)
- General Education requirements across the board usually don’t require math above the College Algebra level (roughly equivalent to Algebra 2 with a chapter or two of Pre-Calculus for good measure).
- Most 4-year colleges and all community colleges offer math classes for every level. Even if you enter college unprepared for college math, the college is usually arranged to help you succeed.
- General Education requirements in math sometimes allow science and technology to count in the same category, meaning it’s sometimes possible to avoid all math entirely by taking an extra science or computer course.
- For your major, Bachelor of Science (BS) degrees usually ask for more math than Bachelor of Arts (BA) degrees – but this is not universal! Be sure to check.