How Much Math is Enough for College?

For students with shaky math skills, stress in the subject often comes down to one word: college.

Junior year is the BIG YEAR for the college-bound, and considering that about 90 percent of Fairfax County grads go on to some kind of higher education, that makes a low test or quiz score a potential blow to thousands of fragile dreams. Or so it may seem at the time.

Quizzes stained with red ink were returned yesterday to Mrs. Colclaser’s second period Algebra II class at Fairfax High, and a handful of students stayed afterward looking sullen or shell-shocked.

“I’ve been trying hard since elementary school,” said one disappointed 17-year old who has her eye on the University of Virgina. “This is just stressful because they put so much pressure on us.”

Lots of students list Advanced Placement classes and loads of transcript-enhancing activities. MATH, they glower, only MATH is their downfall.

The math pitfall is hard to avoid. Fairfax students can technically still get away with skipping Algebra II (if they somehow drag first year algebra and geometry into three years), but the second-year algebra class is widely considered a minimum for colleges. (Just ask the 4,000 students who are taking -- or retaking -- the class for no credit this term at Northern Virginia Community College.)

Put simply: Algebra II is still considered high school material, and in the age of AP and IB, colleges are looking for a little something more.

The North Carolina university system, which encompasses 16 campuses, in recent years have required entering students to have at least four years of math, and they can’t top out at Algebra II. More universities are headed that way.

Virginia university requirements vary. But admissions officers always say they are looking for the best grades in the toughest classes, and stiff competition could be driving up standards by default.

Most students admitted to U-Va. have calculus on their transcript, said Greg W. Roberts, senior associate dean of admission.

But non-math people: don’t despair! Roberts said students who shine in other ways can get a close look too.


To see requirements for other Virginia universities, check out this chart compiled in spring 2007 for the governor’s P-16 education council. (Note: some requirements may have changed since then.)

It’s hard to find this kind of info in one place. Thanks to Achieve Inc. for tracking it down.

By Michael Alison Chandler  |  October 2, 2008; 6:01 AM ET  | Category:  Class Time
Previous: Algebra for All: The Push for Higher Math | Next: Lions and Tigers and Math, Oh My!


Honestly, you really should be in a position to take calculus your first year at college if you can't do it in high school. I understand not everyone is going to be able to take an AP math class like calc before graduating, but it is a required discipline for so many of the sciences. More importantly, the abstract reasoning ability acquired from studying mathematics is applicable to many, many other disciplines. Students are really short changing themselves if they miss out on math.

Posted by: jhmil2 | October 2, 2008 10:23 AM | Report abuse

Unless you are majoring in math/science/engineering Calculus is not a practical class to take for that matter neither is Trigonometry. Physiscs, Chemistry, Biology same thing.

At the same time when is the last time you used something from history class or high school English in your daily job.

Honestly ask yourself unless you are working in the field directly do you use any of these skills.

In my opinion when you really think about it most people should major in business

The problem I feel is that we still have a one size fits all plan in college in many places. Its time for the general education model to go away.

Let's take Virginia as a case study. Apologize in advance for the generalizaitions.

For all intensive purposes Virginia Tech is a technical school and William and Mary is a liberal arts school.

My question then is it really necessary for a kid in high school to take AP Calculus/Trig/Physics/Chemistry if they plan on majoring in the liberal arts

At the same time is it really necessary for a kid to take AP English, AP European History, or 4 years of a foreign langugage if they are planning on majoring in a technical field

To make matters worse at many schools there is a general education requirement.

That is the key when you really think about it you can complete most major courses in two years. Oh but then the universities would only get half of their tution dollars can't have that.

So in summary why should someone who wants to major in English go beyond Algebra II or Biology. In fact if you play your cards right you could complete some of your course work while still in high school and then potentiall only require one year at college. Of course the educational buraucracy would never support this.

Posted by: novamiddleman | October 2, 2008 10:44 AM | Report abuse

What about Fine Arts students who won't have to take any math if they go to a Conservatory of Music, or an art school of some sort. Shouldn't there be some sort of out for them? I never could pass any Algebra or Geometry in my day, and I have 2 Masters degrees (music and library science) and a DMA (Doctor of Musical Arts). I have never had the need for any sort of math, and I'm 60 years old.

Posted by: fink | October 2, 2008 10:47 AM | Report abuse

If you wish to do graduate work in economics, psychology, sociology, or even political science, you really need calculus these days. These fields have become very quantitative. Some Master of Public Policy programs require incoming students to have taken calculus. Kids graduating in quantitative fields like engineering have twice the starting salaries of English majors.

Posted by: ginnyhours | October 2, 2008 11:06 AM | Report abuse

Intents and purposes, novamiddleman.

Posted by: DreA1 | October 2, 2008 11:08 AM | Report abuse

Both novamiddleman and fink make the argument that "upper-level" math (like, in their opinion, Algebra 2) isn't important unless you plan a career in the hard sciences and that those in the fine arts don't need it.

To fink, my response is ... 40 years ago, you probably could get through with a music or art degree with very little math involvement. But to quote the Monkees , "That was then, this is now." There is too much technology involved in the fine arts (music composition, graphic design, digital photography) for one not to have taken advanced courses in math in order to properly use and understand the technology available.

To novamiddleman ... math and science classes aren't just about identifying cell structures, graphing ordered pairs, and knowing the atomic mass of water. More than anything, they are about problem solving. Seeing what information you have, what you want to solve for, and what tools you have in order to complete the task. Problem solving can be applied to business, economics, accounting, philosophy, psychology, ... the list goes on and on. It's about looking at a problem from a different angle and engaging our higher cognitive skills in order to come up with a better solution It's about forward thinking ... about looking at the mistakes of the past and learning from them. In a day and age where numbers and rates and dollar values control our lives, it's essential that individuals have an understanding of numerical relationships, not just in a math textbook, but in the real world, influencing real ideas and trends.

Posted by: fizics95 | October 2, 2008 11:28 AM | Report abuse

Totally agree

I would call that analytical thinking and like I said in my post I feel a business course would be most applicable for the majority of students. (Thats a whole nother issue people getting a major and then never using it because there are only a limited number of actual jobs. Most college graduates end up in some kind of white collar business environment and basically waste their degree learning on the job instead)

For the life of me tell me the last time you used a trig function let along anything from Calculus

Algebra II is perfectly fine for the vast majority of individuals unless of course you plan on becoming an engineer.

Posted by: novamiddleman | October 2, 2008 11:36 AM | Report abuse

I agree with people who think you don't need advanced math in the real world. I'm not that far out from college either (6 years). I struggled with math and science in high school and college. Both subjects did nothing but bring my self-esteem down and I couldn't avoid the subjects.

It hasn't hindered my career and math never pops up on a daily basis like those evil teachers warned us that it would...

I can see why algebra is important. Calculus? Not so much.

Posted by: chaps1 | October 2, 2008 12:30 PM | Report abuse

"People want to take sex education out of the schools. They believe sex education causes promiscuity--if you have the knowledge, use it. Hey, I took algebra. I never do math."

-Elayne Boosler

Posted by: jblatt | October 2, 2008 12:37 PM | Report abuse

I mostly agree with novamiddleman, though I'd point out that business is already the most popular major at most universities, though that obviously doesn't equate to most people studying it. And while we do make kids take a lot of stuff they won't ever use, and this is costly, making kids specialize too early is costly too when they find that they can't get a job in their field but they haven't taken anything outside it in years. Then again, entry level classes probably aren't worth much to an employer anyway.

We need to prepare kids for a variety of jobs because nobody is willing to guarantee them a particular job before they start college. And there is such a thing as an unemployable grade point average, so even if someone graduates in a so-called hot field, they may not get a job and have to change career paths a bit. I know plenty of engineers in those circumstances.

fizics95 wrote:
"There is too much technology involved in the fine arts (music composition, graphic design, digital photography) for one not to have taken advanced courses in math in order to properly use and understand the technology available"

Not being an art major I guess I can't say from experience, but just because you use technology doesn't mean you need to understand the math that went into building that technology. I sincerely doubt any music or art majors use any math beyond geometry or maybe very basic trig. What about logarithms or solving mulivariable or high power multisolution equations applies to their fields? Those topics were most of Algebra 2 as I remember it.

For pretty much everyone, math beyond geometry is a nice-to-know, but not a necessity.

Posted by: bill3 | October 2, 2008 1:34 PM | Report abuse

My husband and I, both biology majors in college and immunology/molecular genetics graduate students after that, laugh about this all the time. Our favorite question: how much of all the math we were forced to take in high school and college did we actually use in work in any basic research laboratory? The answer: one equation. That's right, one simple equation which we learned in high school freshman algeba. I took two years of algebra and one year of geometry in high school, followed by a year of calculus in college, and of that math all I ever used in graduate school and beyond was that one equation.

Posted by: binkmonster | October 2, 2008 1:54 PM | Report abuse

I'm an attorney and I use at least algebra II on a daily basis as a broad-spectrum civil litigator. If I did more criminal defense, I'd probably be using trig pretty often. I was a Physiology/Neurobiology major, so maybe I'm biased, but I think the best argument for requiring students to go above and beyond algebra II is that absolute mastery of algebra II is required for so many fields, including white-collar fields. It is difficult to master algebra when you don't go beyond that and use it in advanced ways.

Posted by: jreddish | October 2, 2008 1:59 PM | Report abuse

Plus, not to stomp on the downtrodden, but I really wish some aggressive mortgage foreclosure victims were a little better at math and a little less trusting of the people doing the math for them.

Posted by: jreddish | October 2, 2008 2:01 PM | Report abuse

I'm a big believer in a liberal arts education, which means that a student should be exposed to a wide variety of material. Not because the material itself is directly relevant to what they will do after they graduate but because that material helps to cultivate them as a person. That is why I think liberal arts majors should have to take calculus, physics majors should have to take art, and engineers should do a little history. At the end of the day, even if none of these things earns you a pay-check they help to make you a well rounded person. If nothing else, you are more interesting to talk to at a party...

Posted by: jhmil2 | October 2, 2008 2:12 PM | Report abuse

Sorry, fizics95, I've been a librarian in a school of music for over 30 years. Nope, no math necessary for current students. If students want to do any "out there" type of composing, it's done with a computer, and actually, no algebra or geometry is required.

Posted by: fink | October 2, 2008 2:37 PM | Report abuse

novamiddleman- I take your logic to be built on the basic assumption that a class subject (like Calculus or Trig, or apparently Physics or Chem too) is really only relevant to a person's educational growth when they'll actually be able to directly apply those lessons/facts/techniques learned on a rather frequent basis. In other words, someone working in a business office environment isn't a "mathematician", so he/she wouldn't really need to understand how to differentiate a variable equation, and he/she isn't a "physicist", so he/she wouldn't really need to understand how to calculate forces.

But I find this logic to be very lacking, since the reality is that the underlying principles and lessons learned by taking these classes really enrich a person on a far broader and deeper level than you assume by what immediately comes to mind when you think of the class names, like "Differential Equations" or "Biology".

Frankly, I consider a business person (let alone someone with an MBA) very lacking in their discipline if they can't understand things like Calculus, since they'd literally be lacking fundamental analytical and problem-solving skills by not having the background in them (which is why at least a certain degree of exposure to higher-level math is often requisite at most business schools worth a rat's patoot).

I also consider the exact opposite to be true; engineers and scientists that have a negligible exposure to higher-level English grammar classes (or even foreign language study) can be deficient in communication and writing abilities -classic problems in the technical realm. Similarly, without the sort of analytical lessons from literature classes and social sciences (esp. history), I think it leaves engineering a more naked field of cold science, that can be ignorant or neglectful of ethical, social, political, etc. impacts of what they do. Now you see in some engineering schools specific ethics courses that directly pertain to realities of the engineering field.

I don't discount the value of focusing as much time as one can to the main scope of their discipline, and I think many grade schools in the US are doing a disservice to those who could otherwise have made very satisfying middle-class lives working a trade like electricians, plumbers, etc., and instead have tried to place so many requirements on students to diversify their background. But for many professions, whether it be in the business field, engineering, psychology, economics, medicine, law, narrowing the focus too much and not getting a wide enough background in other higher-level concepts (ones not necessarily directly influencing their profession), then I think you can easily wind up with a deficient professional.

Some of the problems we're going through today in all kinds of industries can be attributed to this, and certainly we're losing out to foreign-educated individuals when it comes to math and the technical field because so few young Americans are pursuing things that require a background in mathematics, since they have such a distaste for the math. It's a shame, and it really needs to change.

Posted by: Comunista | October 2, 2008 2:40 PM | Report abuse

While algebra is very important for critical thinking, the class I wish I had taken in high school ( and college) was statistics. I have read so many studies in my years in medicine and none of them made much sense until I took biomedical statistics while working on my MPH. Everything , including these endless polls ,revolve around an understanding of risk: relative and absolute. If more people understood statistics, we could make better decisions in all fields of work.

Posted by: DrJMD | October 2, 2008 5:21 PM | Report abuse

I took calculus at Langley High School in 1986 simply because it was expected of me, not because I had any plans to use it. I planned on majoring in English, and that's what I did. That calculus credit has opened more doors than I ever would have imagined. It made possible my last career and the staggering salary that accompanied it, and it has made it possible for me to act on my mid-life crisis and start a new career that's more spiritually rewarding. Honestly, neither career path would have been possible without the calculus credit that I earned over twenty years ago.

Posted by: qimugtua | October 2, 2008 8:29 PM | Report abuse

Posted by Comunista:
"I also consider the exact opposite to be true; engineers and scientists that have a negligible exposure to higher-level English grammar classes (or even foreign language study) can be deficient in communication and writing abilities -classic problems in the technical realm. Similarly, without the sort of analytical lessons from literature classes and social sciences (esp. history), I think it leaves engineering a more naked field of cold science, that can be ignorant or neglectful of ethical, social, political, etc. impacts of what they do. Now you see in some engineering schools specific ethics courses that directly pertain to realities of the engineering field."

I agree completely with your assessment, Comunista. I feel that it is very important for scientists and engineers to have a good grasp on the technical and social implications of their work. At the University of VIrginia, where I am currently a fourth-year Engineering major, we are required to take 4 semesters of classes in the Science, Technology, and Society (STS) department. The goal of the STS department is two-fold: to promote the writing abilities of engineers, and to encourage thought and discussion about the many implications of even the most mundane engineering projects. These classes have proven to be extremely enlightening for me, as I have never considered many of the issues that have come up in our discussions in that class. To my knowledge, U.Va. is one of few schools to require such an in-depth discussion on this topic.

I would take this a step further, however. I personally feel that engineers (and scientists) should also be required to take at least two courses in the fine and performing arts in college. I have had the fortune of being able to work in our Drama department all four years at U.Va., and by doing so I have been able to think about many problems in ways that engineers do not typically think about them. I think that this 'arts experience' would help many other engineers think about their problems in new and unique ways.

To this end, I also believe that the converse holds true in this discussion - namely, that students in the liberal and fine arts should have exposure to scientific, math, and even engineering courses. In the same why that liberal- and fine-arts courses help engineers and scientists to think about their projects and problems differently, an exposure to math and science may provide insight to liberal and fine arts students that they might not have had before.

While many schools seek to achieve this balance in different ways, I do not know of any schools which force students to such 'extremes' - that is, engineers in fine arts courses and vice versa. I believe that it would be an interesting experiment to say the least.

To Michael Alison Chandler, I eagerly await your continued posts on this blog. Also, I think it would be interesting for us math and engineering nerds if you would mention in each post what topic(s) you are covering in class at the time of the post.

Carry on!

Posted by: UVaEE09 | October 3, 2008 12:50 AM | Report abuse

novamiddleman wrote "At the same time when is the last time you used something from history class or high school English in your daily job." and "At the same time is it really necessary for a kid to take AP English, AP European History, or 4 years of a foreign langugage if they are planning on majoring in a technical field."

I'm a computer network engineer, and rely on English every day. How am I expected to communicate to someone without an understanding of how our language is structured? Writing skills are vital if I'm to pass on the knowledge I have to someone else. Speaking skills are equally important. How much attention do you pay to anyone who "umm"s and "errr"s their way through explaining a rather complex subject? People need to learn how to focus their thoughts so that they can be explained properly.

Now, in my relatively technical field, I don't use history very much. However, I use it quite frequently in my every day life outside of the office. I view a knowledge of our country's and the world's history vital when considering the events that are unfolding today. It's important to understand where one has been if you're trying to figure out where you're going. Just because it's something I don't use in my job doesn't mean that I don't find it a necessary subject, and I am a little disappointed that I only earned a history minor in college and never completed a degree in it.

The foreign language requirement is equally important. Even now, Spanish speakers make up a huge chunk of the American population. Why would you not want to be able to communicate with them? That's a huge market you've basically ignored. Or going back to that technical field... You may have noticed that most of the electronic equipment you purchase is made in Asian nations. If you're going to have anything to do with electronics, then perhaps you might consider picking up Chinese or Japanese, because odds are, you're going to be dealing with it quite a bit. Knowledge of their history and culture would also be beneficial. I laugh when I hear people talk about the fact that most of the time, the Chinese or Japanese people they need to work with speak English, so why learn their language? Think about who's leading the world in manufacturing and electronics. They seem to think learning the language of their biggest customer is a good idea. Maybe we should be following their example, and learn the language of our own trading partners.

Posted by: james_l_milne | October 3, 2008 10:27 AM | Report abuse

How many people change majors in college? How often are those huge changes? Years ago I set out to major in Aerospace Engineering. I knew exactly what AP tests fulfilled degree requirements at my choice college. I took other classes because they fulfilled H.S. requirements, and avoided some because they fulfilled neither. I didn't like my major and left. Now I've restarted in Math Education, not a very big change, but had I taken what was available I'd potentially started another 15 credits better off into my new major. By shying away from classes now, high schoolers make changing paths harder later.

Also, think about your children. If mommy's not good at math, hates math, what are the chances that their child (particularly their daughter) is going to hear this and believe that they too will not be good at math? OTOH, if you do take atleast Calculus, no matter what your child decides to do with their life, you'll at least be familiar with their homework through high school.

Posted by: mys3lf | October 3, 2008 12:30 PM | Report abuse

Hello again everyone

I think this is an agree to disagree.

I can only speak on my own and some of my collegues experiences. We spend most of our days reading or writing reports, atttending meetings, managing people and projects, drafting and editing powerpoints, and sometimes using excel or access documents.

We never use calculus or trig or even geometry for that matter. And I would suspect the vast majority of jobs are similar. History, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, same thing. And AP English when is the last time you had to know poetry terms or who wrote a certain book.

Sorry I took us down a tangent. It is my personal belief that high school needs to be seriously revamped. The classes have to have meaning for the students. Perhaps more of a European model with trade options and more speciality schools.

Algebra is perfectly fine for the vast majority of individuals.

Looking forward to more postings

Posted by: novamiddleman | October 3, 2008 2:38 PM | Report abuse

"Some of the best musicians in the band have been engineering majors..." - from a recent conversation with a university band conductor. In most universities the school of engineering is an "arts and science" degree. Arts and sciences are related. As someone who started college as a music major but finished as an electrical engineer, I will never forgive the advisor that pushed me to take the easy math classes early in my college career. The thought processes developed in increasingly complex math courses won't hurt anyone in the long run, even if they cause some students pain in the short run.

Posted by: amiller8 | October 9, 2008 7:30 PM | Report abuse

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