With applications to universities like FSU at an all-time high, is it time to require more high school math and science for admission?

Some of the most frustrating experiences I have as a physics educator at FSU have to do with mistakes that students made in high school – with the approval of their parents, counselors and teachers.

I have had students come to my office who have decided they want to major in physics, only to find that the decisions they made in high school to take courses like Statistics and College Algebra instead of moving on to Precalculus and Calculus have made it impossible for them to succeed in pursuing their new (and now shattered) dream of a career studying the fundamental laws of nature.

I have had many students majoring in engineering, computer science and physical sciences stumble in my introductory physics classes because they skipped physics in high school and can’t get traction while the better-prepared students around them succeed.  One of the reasons this is so common – about one-third of the students in my classes are in this situation – is because Florida’s high school physics enrollment rate is about half the national rate.  And high school physics enrollments in the state have dropped 8% in the last three years.

Is there a way to fix this?

Sure.  FSU could require precalculus, chemistry and physics for admission.

And this is exactly the right time to implement such a policy.

Applications for freshman admission to FSU are up about 20% this year.  About 50,000 have applied.  The university is planning for an incoming class of about 6,200, so it will admit about 15,000 students – less than one-third of applicants.

FSU wants to grow its number of engineering graduates.  The state’s performance funding model rewards the university for the percentage of its graduates who earn degrees in “Areas of Strategic Emphasis”, which include STEM and health fields.

Surely a new admission requirement for high school courses in precalculus, chemistry and physics would cut down the number of applicants.  But even if only 40,000 students applied next year instead of this year’s 50,000, the university would still be highly selective.

Will it happen?  Almost certainly not.  The culture of the institution is still deeply rooted in its historical emphasis on humanities and the arts.  It sometimes seems that FSU’s world-class success in some science and technology fields is almost accidental.

So we will continue to rely on parents, counselors and teachers to guide aspiring FSU undergraduates into taking the courses like precalculus, chemistry and physics that will allow students the full range of career options once they arrive on campus.  At some schools, students and parents will get that guidance.  At other schools, they will not.

And those of us who are trying to shepherd FSU students through their college math and science courses will continue to do the best we can.



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