Cal State Wants Incoming Freshmen To Have More Math. Opponents Fear It Will Only Widen The Equity Divide 

A meeting of the California State University trustees in Long Beach. (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)

Earlier this year, the California State University system floated a controversial proposal to require high school students to take an extra year of math — or a related class, like personal finance or coding — to be considered for admission.

The reactions from both critics and supporters were so heated that the system's trustees set aside three and a half hours for a public forum on Thursday at Cal State Long Beach.

On one side, they'll hear from opponents who say the change could be discriminatory.

"We are concerned," Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said in an interview last month. "Every high school, every K through 12 system in the state of California, would have to provide full and equitable access for all students to complete a fourth year of math, before Cal State could adopt that new requirement."

One the other side, they'll hear from supporters who say Cal State should mandate stricter "quantitative reasoning" standards — meaning more advanced classes in math or disciplines that require good math skills — so that incoming freshmen will be better prepared for college-level courses.

"We're not pushing them, we're inviting them to collaborate with us to better prepare students," said Associate Vice Chancellor James Minor earlier this year when the proposal was given to trustees.

Here are some of the classes CSU says could meet the new requirement:

  • Engineering
  • Forensics
  • Veterinary Science
  • Sports Medicine
  • Environmental Science
  • Statistics
  • Economics
  • Personal Finance
  • Accounting
  • Computer Science
  • Robotics
  • Programming
  • Coding
  • Game Design

Opponents say the burden to create and staff these classes to meet the requirement would fall on California public school districts.

If the new admission requirements are approved later this year — trustees are scheduled to vote on them in November — they would go into effect in the fall of 2026. But representatives of K-12 districts say they still won't be prepared to implement a fourth year of math or math skills in high schools. California currently requires only two years of math for high school seniors to earn a high school diploma.

"There's a real lack of teachers in the pipeline who are qualified," said Audrey Dow, senior vice president of the Campaign for College Opportunity, which is advocating against the change in collaboration with school districts throughout the state The group is opposing the proposal because it fears the additional requirement would close the door to college for a lot of low-income students from schools with insufficient resources, most of them black and Latino.

L.A Unified, the state's largest school district, says fewer than half of its graduates qualify to apply to Cal State under the current three-year math requirement. The school district, along with districts in Santa Ana, Anaheim, San Francisco, Sacramento, and others, are opposing the Cal State proposal.

California State University says the change wouldn't be such a big push because nearly 80% of its incoming freshmen already have a fourth year of math or a quantitative reasoning class under their belt. Trustees point to Long Beach Unified as a model district for the change. Long Beach high schools already require graduates to take a fourth year of math or a class with math skills.

Long Beach's school superintendent, Christopher Steinhauser, is a Cal State trustee.

Speakers at the public forum are likely to raise questions about the impact on the pool of students who already qualify for Cal State admission but are not admitted because there aren't enough enrollment slots at many campuses. In the fall of 2018, Cal State turned away more than 30,000 qualified applicants from California high schools. Critics wonder whether that pool will be increasingly made up of students graduating from underprivileged schools.

The proposed new admissions standard is one prong in a wide effort called Graduation Initiative 2025. It's headed by Associate Vice Chancellor Minor, and is designed to increase the number of students who earn a Cal State degree within four years. He says one of the major obstacles is that about a third of each year's incoming freshmen have trouble passing college-level math and English classes.

School district administrators have sent letters to CSU saying the university system isn't doing enough to support those freshmen.

"[A]t a time when California continues to be plagued by wide racial/ethnic gaps in enrollment and success at public four-year universities, our higher education systems must ensure that policies do not unfairly create unnecessary obstacles for students on the way to earning a college degree," said Michael Matsuda, Superintendent of the Anaheim Union High School District.

Matsuda says students need more than just a fourth year of math to be better prepared for college — they need collaboration and critical thinking skills, too.

The public forum is scheduled for 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and will be live streamed on the board of trustees web page.