Math Courses Are Identified As ‘Gatekeepers’ to College

By Peter West — October 03, 1990 2 min read

Poor and minority students who take high-school algebra and geometry courses attend college at a much higher rate than those who do not, and nearly equal the rate of more affluent white students, a new study by the College Board indicates.

The report’s findings are sufficiently dramatic to “justify serious consideration of a national policy to ensure that all students take algebra and geometry,” said Donald M. Stewart, president of the College Board.

Writing in “Changing the Odds: Factors Increasing Access to College,” researchers for Pelavin Associates Inc., an independent research firm, argue that, irrespective of race or ethnicity, substantially more students entered college and persisted in their studies if they both planned to attend college and took algebra and geometry in high school than if they did not.

The researchers found that 58 percent of white students attend college within four years of graduating from high school, while only 47 percent of black students and 45 percent of Hispanic students do so.

They also noted that poor students attend college at 61 percent the rate of their more affluent peers.

Poor and minority students enrolled in high-school geometry classes at less than half the rate of white and wealthy students, they found.

The study also found that aspirations for a bachelor’s degree reduced the gap between the college-completion rates of high- and low-income students.

But more strikingly, the study indicates, the college-attendance gap between white and minority students virtually disappears among students who enroll in high-school algebra and geometry.

Eighty-three percent of the whites, 80 percent of the blacks, and 82 percent of the Hispanics who took such courses went on to college. The attendance gap was almost cut in half among poor students who took geometry.

The researchers attempted to identify potential “gatekeeper courses’'--those that students generally take in the 9th or 10th grade when deciding to go to college--that might hamper college attendance for minority and poor students.

English and social studies were not considered to be gatekeepers because they usually are required of all students in some form and the nature of the coursework required could not be determined.

“From these findings it would be reasonable to conclude that math is the gatekeeper for success in college,” added Mr. Stewart. “The contrast between students who do and students who don’t take math is almost magical.”

The report recommends that schools develop plans to encourage all students to master algebra and geometry and to aspire to attend college.

The study analyzed the educational experience of 15,941 American students to discern how college attendance and completion rates of poor and minority students are affected by several factors, including race, ethnicity, and family income; college aspirations; and enrollment in high-school courses in algebra and geometry, laboratory sciences, and foreign languages.

The data were drawn from “High School and Beyond,” a nationally representative study of high-school students and their performance in college. The subsample used in the study was of college sophomores who particpated in the data-gathering in 1980 through 1986 and for whom high-school transcript information was gathered in 1982.

Copies of the report, number 003969, are available for $14.95 each from College Board Publications, Box 886, New York, N.Y. 10101-0886.

A version of this article appeared in the October 03, 1990 edition of Education Week as Math Courses Are Identified As ‘Gatekeepers’ to College