If one more parent tells me how proud she or he is of her high school son or daughter for taking a college math course which turns out to be College Algebra, I will probably not be able to stifle the urge to groan out loud.
Since some of my readers are not university professors, I should explain.
College Algebra is about half a step above the standard high school Algebra 2 course. In high school, a student who wants to earn a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field follows Algebra 2 with a Precalculus course that includes trigonometry and analytic geometry. Then these students continue on (we hope) to a first calculus course. About one-third of Florida’s students take Algebra 2 by 10th grade.
At Florida’s state universities, College Algebra carries the course number MAC 1105. It is the lowest level math course that earns college credit. If a student takes a lower level course, it is considered “developmental” and does not earn college credit. A student in a STEM major must follow MAC 1105 with a trigonometry course (Analytic Trigonometry, MAC 1114) and Precalculus (MAC 1140). A student who earns a math SAT score of 600 or better is exempted from the requirement to take College Algebra.
A student who arrives at FSU intending to major in engineering or physics and who needs to take College Algebra is dead in the water. Students who come in having to start with trigonometry or precalculus are starting at least a semester behind, but at least in the Physics Department the bachelor’s degree success rate of students whose first math course at FSU is College Algebra is zero.
Florida’s State College System uses College Algebra to entice high school students into the dual enrollment program. Parents love the idea of their kids earning college credits for free, even if (or especially if) it is in courses that are really high school courses in disguise. The downside is when a student who took College Algebra in high school becomes convinced on this basis that she or he is ready to take on a rigorous STEM major (“rigorous STEM majors” is a subset of all STEM majors). I’ve been in too many advising sessions with incoming physics majors who are crestfallen when they realize how far behind they are even before their first day of FSU classes.
College Algebra has always been a course that faculty members in math departments at universities tolerate because it produces lots of credit hours and keeps the administration off their backs. In our increasingly competitive and technological society, it’s time to reclassify College Algebra as a developmental non-college credit-earning course and stop fooling parents, students and policy-makers that it represents college-level work.