A look at the “serious” courses in college today.
By Professor Doom
I’ve seen plenty of articles bemoaning ridiculous college courses in such questionable subjects as The Morality of Scooby Doo or the like, but nobody speaks of what’s going on in the “serious “ subjects of college, like in mathematics.
The great remediation scam has allowed institutions of higher learning to greatly expand their student base, but only by offering many courses that are comparable to what is available in high school. Actually, to call the material high school level is rather generous. It makes sense to look at math remedial courses in some detail, to make it easier to see what’s going on in this critical stream of institutional revenue:
1. College Algebra
“It’s called College Algebra because nobody would pay for a course called The Algebra You Should Have Learned in High School.”
--Faculty member (not me, though I wish it were).
Algebra is the basic language of mathematics, it’s all but impossible in the modern world to accomplish much in math without some familiarity with the syntax of algebra. I was a bit slow in math, and a year behind the “top” students. Thus, I took algebra in the 11th grade, instead of the 10th grade like the better students, but the point is college material today used to be early high school material.
“[That professor]’s math class is hard. You’ll have to come to class for it.”
--overheard student comment, defining what makes a course hard, relative to other courses, no doubt.
College Algebra is a necessary course, the language, notation, and attention to detail learned there is critical to almost every other field. It is the prerequisite to over a 100 courses, and yet administration is perpetually trying to get rid of it, unable to understand that doing so shuts students out of many of the most profitable fields of study—profitable for students, not for administration.
The “College Algebra” course offered at my college (and elsewhere) is little different than the remedial, non college credit course from the 80s…it’s also little different than the algebra course I took in high school. The primary difference is that College Algebra has less information than my high school course, lacking discussion of matrices, circles, ellipses, distance, hyperbolas, inequalities, and a few other things. This is actually representative of many low level college courses: they have less than what used to be taught in high school courses of the same name. Thus, College Algebra belongs in a discussion of remedial courses because it used to be remedial; only the stroke of an administrative pen has changed its status.
Passing rates in College Algebra courses usually run a bit more than 50%, although not much more (at one state university, the rate went from 50% to above 85% from one semester to the next, due to extensive pressure and threats from administration to pass more students). This course is all but mandatory, however, and is much loathed by administration (an “impediment to graduation,” as one Dean put it), despite it being a borderline high school course. College Algebra now represents the most advanced material a student might learn.
Pitchman: “What we know for sure is, the students who score high enough for College Algebra usually took courses past College Algebra in high school. The students who don’t quite make it into College Algebra took it in high school, and so on down the line.”
Faculty: “Wait a minute. You mean there’s hard evidence for what we know to be true: that to achieve a goal in learning, you must push past that goal to succeed? Why haven’t these results been published?”
Pitchman: “That was off the record.”
--Exchange between faculty and pitchman, discussing results learned from a very popular standardized test very often used to place students.
The quote above hints at a truth: the most advanced skill a person has mastered cannot be the most recent skill that was learned. In order to be comfortable with high school algebra, a student must push past the concepts in high school algebra.
Because the passing rate of College Algebra is so unsatisfactory in administrative eyes, many campuses offer an “Explorations in Algebra” type course, a fake course with “Algebra” in the title so it at least sounds like it might be a real course. These courses are rationalized by “removing material the students don’t need,” and it’s no small amount of material. There are variations, but the course seldom has significantly more in it than a remedial course, albeit for college credit. Well, sort of college credit: the course is seldom transferrable and doesn’t prepare the student for anything (remember, College Algebra is a prerequisite for over 100 courses). That said, the fake algebra course generally has a much higher passing rate, which makes administration very happy…and is worthless when the student tries to apply it towards any degree anyone would be willing to pay for.
After years of diligently working to make a college degree represent no more than a high school diploma, college administrators, by promoting “Explorations” type courses, are now working to make a college degree as meaningful as graduating from the 8th grade. This is why books like Academically Adrift can easily show that about half of college graduates have no measurable increase in cognitive skills over what they had in high school; 6 years of college, and all the student gets is a worthless piece of paper and a mountain of debt.
“Dammit. I studied for two hours and STILL failed that test.”
--student angrily telling me my test was too hard. The two hours represented all the time he’d put into the course over the last month. How did he get the idea that two hours of study would be sufficient to understand a month of material? Hint: other courses he was taking.
Although the passing rate is relatively low, College Algebra really isn’t that tough a course. Every semester, I’ve had multiple students that failed the course before take it again, come back and pass the course, often with a B or better. They’re only too willing to tell me the difference is they actually studied the second time around. For most students, passing this course is simply a matter of study and effort, which can be quite the confusing barrier when compared to many other courses.
On the other hand, there are absolutely people (perhaps 10% of the population) that have a real problem with math. The most common issue they claim to have is they “can’t remember anything” when it comes time to take the test. They are not lying about this lack of memory, but in speaking with them, asking for demonstrations of knowledge outside of test time, they can’t remember anything outside of test time, either. It’s cruel of administration to force such people to take this course, but in administration’s defense, for accreditation, they have no choice but force students to take it. I wonder what kind of education a person can have when he remembers none of it, and how administration can claim to be acting with integrity when they go out of their way to sell an education to such a person.
“How much is 2/5?”
--Student question, a high school graduate who passed a remedial course the previous semester. I tried to explain via a pie graph and other examples, but I’m not convinced I helped her even a little. A history professor jokingly offered the best answer: “3/5.”
Many students come into College Algebra unprepared. With no ability to work with fractions or distinguish between multiplication and addition in algebraic notation, there’s little chance they can pass. This leads to our first official remedial (nowadays) course:
2. College Preparatory Algebra II (remedial math)
“The Civil War was inevitable, but it didn’t have to be that way.”
---quote from a student history paper. A month before the paper was written, the history professor ranted extensively to the rest of the faculty how annoying it was that he had to stop his lecture, and spend time defining the word ‘inevitable’ to his class. This is common to remedial students: they can look you dead in the eye, nod in agreement that they understand, and still not comprehend a word you’re saying. Remedial students can take other college classes, even if they have yet to take, much less pass, the remedial courses.
Most remedial rstudents need only take this one course before going on to a college career (which has been shown to end in failure for over 90% of remedial students). It covers basically the material that public schools address in 7th-9th grade (remember, “College Algebra” is 10th grade). Students are usually in this course because they failed this material in the 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grade. The majority of meetings regarding math instruction are about how to increase retention (i.e., passing) in this class.
A large minority of students in College Preparatory Algebra II are non-traditional. They took and passed the material years ago, but have simply forgotten it, or at least are extremely rusty. While spending four months reviewing in college is a painfully slow and expensive way to go about regaining these skills, I can appreciate not everyone has the initiative to go down to the library, check out a book, read and re-read and practice for a few hours until the skills come back. I’m sure administration would never suggest such a course of action to a student, not with a sweet student loan check on the line.
“I co ming offise to day AAAAaaaa?”
--E-mail from a Vietnamese student. She got an A in my trigonometry class, dominating the other students despite not knowing much English. Yes, she did work in a nail salon, and no, she didn’t graduate the equivalent of high school in her native country. She asked one question the whole semester, coming to my office to do so: “How come students that know nothing are in this class?”
Another small minority of students are in remedial math because their English skills are weak; the course helps with this, as the student is really there to learn how to express concepts in English, having already learned them in his or her native tongue.
Remedial students will initiate calls or answer their phone during class. In College Algebra, upwards of 20% of the class at any given moment will be texting/playing on their cell phones, but the percentage of students engaging in this activity in this level of remedial class is usually around 50% (it’s rather amusing how many students think they are fooling me by keeping their hands in their crotches for 50 straight minutes, or digging in a purse every five minutes of class).
3. College Preparatory Algebra I (sub-remedial math)
Me, addressing class: “Ok, so last class we learned about complementary angles, worked some problems with complementary angles, and I assigned homework problems on it. Any questions on the homework?”
Student: “Yeah, problem #1.”
Me, reading the problem: “Angles A and B are complementary...before going to the rest of the problem, what does complementary mean for angles?”
(Several moments of silence, then a student responds)
Student A: “They’re equal?”
(Three other students, echoing): “Equal?” “Equal?” “Equal?”
Me: “No. The mathematical word for ‘equal’ is ‘equal’. This is a different word, and it means something different. Take out your books, and look in the index or the section the homework is in, and find the definition of complementary. Or look in your notes from last class, where I gave you the definition before assigning the homework.”
(Sixty seconds of page flipping passes, and a student responds)
Student B: “They’re the same?”
(Three other students, echoing): “Same?” “Same?” “Same?”
--An actual exchange in sub-remedial class. I couldn’t make this up if I tried.
College Preparatory Algebra I basically covers material from the 6th to most of the 9th grade. If that seems to overlap with College Preparatory Algebra II above, that’s because it does; years of my explaining this to administration accomplished nothing, because the course as-is had a higher retention rate.
Despite this being nearly the same course as College Preparatory Algebra II, the students that place into this course are clearly weaker than in the “advanced” remedial course—those placement tests are pretty good. The students in this course typically spend years on campus, going nowhere but deeper in debt.
If a student comes to enroll, and needs a year of remedial courses before he can take what used to be a remedial course, maybe administration should ask “Are you serious about learning?” rather than telling him “Check this box stating you’re looking for a degree, so you can start getting student loan money.” It’s a long hard road to higher learning from the 6th grade.
4. Basic Mathematics (pre-sub-remedial)
“It’s dummy-dummy math.”
--this course as described by a student.
This course covers perhaps 3rd to 5th grade material, from how to add and subtract whole numbers, to plotting points on the number line. Every homework problem must be done in class because no understanding of the material can be taken for granted.
I’ve never seen or heard of a student going from this course to anything like a successful college career. With over 90% of “normal” remedial students failing to have a college career, this isn’t surprising. For one semester, we offered an even more basic math (a sub-pre-sub-remedial course). This course was promoted by one instructor as “taking out the math they don’t need, like squares and rectangles,” and allowed to offer it after singing the “better retention” siren song to administration.
There’s a huge issue of integrity in the pre-sub-remedial course. If you’re teaching 3rd grade material to an adult, you consider that adult to have the cognitive skills of an 8 year old at best. There’s nothing wrong with trying to improve education and learning, but at some point, someone should think “This student didn’t learn this in 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grade. Maybe he doesn’t want to learn this and we shouldn’t loan him money to learn it.” Failing that, admissions should think “Maybe loaning this person money that goes right to us would be taking advantage of someone with a mental disability and it would be not be acting with integrity to do that.” So far, these possibilities have never been raised at any meeting concerning remediation, and administration continues to sell these courses to anyone willing to go into debt to take them.
Let’s go over that last idea again:
If I targeted elderly patients with dementia to the point that they had the cognitive skills of an 8 year old, and manipulated them into signing contracts turning over their life savings to me, I’d be considered a…scumbag.
If I targeted actual 8 year olds, and got them to sign contracts so that every penny they saved in their lives went right to me, I’d be considered a…fool.
If someone comes to my university, and I document they have the cognitive skills of an 8 year old, then make them check a box so that I make more money and the student will never save a penny in his life I am a…successful university administrator.
Hugely pressing issues of integrity aside, considerable resources in higher education today are being blown on courses like the above, for remedial students. I’ll concede there is plenty of indoctrination going on in higher education, but the courses above are representative of the “serious” coursework, on a subject I’ve not seen anyone else ever complain about in all the articles railing against the perils of higher education…should higher education be mostly about re-learning the skills taught in high school and lower?
Think about it.