Is the college algebra requirement a “civil rights issue”? Eloy Ortiz Oakley, Chancellor of California Community Colleges, thinks so. He wants to eliminate the requirement for non-STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) majors to get an AA degree or transfer to a four-year college in California. He said, “If you think about all the underemployed or unemployed Americans in this country who cannot connect to a job in this economy—which is unforgiving of those students who don’t have a credential—the biggest barrier for them is this algebra requirement. It’s what has kept them from achieving a credential.” Currently intermediate algebra is the lowest level of math needed at community colleges to graduate or transfer. Oakley is correct this is a major hurdle for community college students, as it is the single most failed course in community colleges today.

The dismal state of the academic results of the state’s community colleges is hard to overlook. The community college system is not called the Bermuda Triangle of Higher Education without reason. While the rate fluctuates slightly from year to year, currently only 48% graduate from California’s community colleges with an AA or transfer to four-year school within six years. According to a report entitled “Vision for Success,” prepared for and adopted by the California community college system’s Board of Governors recently, even the 48% figure is overstated because it doesn’t include students who earned less than six units or did not even attempt to take a math or English course within 3 years of entering the system. Another problem pointed out by the report is that students often accumulate far more course units than they need to graduate, earn a certificate, or transfer to a four-year college. While 60 units is generally all that is needed to move on, currently the average number of units a community college student accumulates is 87 units. While students linger in community colleges for no useful reason, the report states that they “crowd out or slow down the trajectory of other students who need these same courses for reaching their own educational goals.” Wasn’t community college supposed to be a two-year program? OK, some people have to work full or part-time while they attend school, so it’s understandable that they might take longer, but six years and less than 50% graduating?

So, how to improve the outcome for the students? The educators could try to teach math more effectively—or simply lower the bar. Clearly Oakley is making the case for lowering the standard by getting rid of the algebra requirement. He says, “What we’re saying is we want as rigorous a course as possible to determine a student’s ability to succeed, but it should be relevant to their course of study. There are other math courses that we could introduce that tell us a lot more about our students.” While “rigorous” is a nice soundbite, the educational trend over the years, especially in government schools, has been moving them in and out with a diploma in hand, regardless if the students learned anything. We have to at least sympathize with Oakley on one issue: the academic preparedness of high school graduates entering community colleges is so low that 74% require remedial work. As one community college administrator put it, “Community colleges are open access. Students can come here whether or not we have courses that are appropriate for them. We get students who can’t read. That blows me away! My curriculum is not designed to teach someone how to read.”

With such a daunting job ahead of them, lowering the bar would definitely be a step in the wrong direction. For one thing, college—and all of formal education, for that matter—is supposed to give students the skills to think, and there are some forms of reasoning that may not actually be used on the job but are essential to becoming a critically-thinking adult. A journal article from Frontiers in Human Neuroscience had this to say about the role that algebra plays in the development of abstract mathematical reasoning: “Algebra typically represents the students’ first encounter with abstract mathematical reasoning and it therefore causes significant difficulties for students who still reason concretely…In agreement with previous research, we can conclude that, on average, children at the age of 15-16 transition from using concrete to abstract strategies while solving the algebra problems addressed within the present study.”

Since it is not unreasonable to expect 15 and 16-year-olds to start reasoning abstractly, is there any good reason not to expect the same of community college students? Especially since California taxpayers are paying $9 billion per year—not to mention the parcel taxes imposed by local governments—to sustain such unimpressive results. If the stated purpose of low cost government higher education for all “for the overall betterment of society” is the goal, we would give California’s community colleges a failing grade. And Chancellor Oakley’s proposal would sink the system to a new low.