Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

College Algebra Should Be Illegal

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Apparently it is in this year to promise a free college education. That way, college-age people will like you, back you and strive mightily to get you elected. Their parents, who in many cases cosign their college loans, will like you, too.

To be fair, we have all been beaten about the head with statistics showing the supposed advantage in earning power college graduates have over non-graduates since I can remember. While the economist in me wants to dig a little deeper and look at component factors (such as major, program rigor and course content), I can see why people react the way they do to that data. Meanwhile, college costs have increased at 2.5 times the rate of inflation since the 1980s. So, yeah, I understand the pain.

In 2014, 69% of graduates of public and private non-profit colleges graduated with debt, and the average debt load of those graduates was almost $29,000. This is a substantial portion of anticipated first-year earnings that alters the economics of getting a college degree. In 2013, Senators Dick Durbin, Jack Reed and Elizabeth Warren called for a basket of student loan reforms, including penalizing colleges who had high graduate loan default rates.

“They will have to have skin in the game,” [Senator Reed] said. “They will have to make financial judgments based on how well-informed and how reliable their graduates are in terms of paying back their student loans.”

I would like to take a different approach to this issue. In this essay, I will survey what content can be moved into public secondary education so that more of what we now consider to be a college education is available at no cost to the student.

Preparation for What?

I am not saying that the education professionals are scheming to slow children’s learning down in order to exploit them by selling them more courses. Many of the people who have shaped our public education system are earnest, sincere and want to do what is best for the kids. That is what makes the problem so intractable.

Some people believe that all children should be prepared for college; others believe that would be a disservice to many students who would be better served preparing for a trade. We have differing concepts of the purpose of childhood: is it to be engaged as an end in itself, or is it a time of preparation for adult life? We have different levels of funding across school districts: how much does that influence outcomes?

All these questions are worthy of discussion — but we don’t really discuss them. The proponents of different viewpoints gather together, share evidence supporting their pre-existing beliefs, and holler abuse at those who disagree.

Creating the Client

The same schools that are not teaching your grade-school child to read are teaching remedial reading when the kids should be learning effective composition and algebra. Then, when the kids go to college, they can be put through more remedial courses in composition and algebra to correct prior omissions in their education.

Indeed, U.S. schools do teach arithmetic well … But they teach it over and over again, instead of assuming students have learned, say, fractions after a couple of years. In his study of textbooks, Mr. Schmidt found that U.S. books covered up to 35 different math topics a year — that means teachers fly through them at a speed of one a week — and didn’t drop any of them until seventh grade.

If some topics are taught over and over, algebra usually isn’t taught at all until ninth grade because . . . well, because ninth-grade algebra has always been an American tradition. But isolating algebra that way means that about 90% of a ninth-grade math book is new material — a huge blast of abstract thinking after years of easy-going arithmetic.
— “Low X-pectations: Students Fear Algebra, And Then Comes the Ninth-Grade Crunch“, Wall Street Journal,  16 Jun 1998.

For many students, Algebra 1 is their first formal encounter with abstract thinking.

.. Algebra is what teachers call a gatekeeper course; you have to go through it to reach the possibilities beyond. Algebra is the language of math and science, “the language of problem solving,” says University of Chicago math professor Zalman Usiskin. It deals in abstractions — using letters to generalize math operations — that expand thinking skills. In a technology-fueled society, says Mr. Usiskin, not knowing algebra “limits what you can do.”
Ibid.

Abstract thinking is essential not only to make a living as a knowledge worker, but to solve problems as a citizen. Without the ability to think abstractly, you can’t find patterns. Every problem is brand new, having nothing in common with any that you have ever seen before. Abstract thinking is a necessary skill, and those who are on the sensory side of Myers-Briggs and don’t come out of the chute thinking abstractly are especially dependent on the education system to teach it to them.

Youngsters who take algebra tend to go to college, research shows, and low-income youngsters who take it are almost as likely to go to college as middle- and upper-income kids. The gap in test scores between students in private school and those in public school largely disappears if they take upper-level math courses, beginning with algebra.
Ibid.

Thus it is premature to say to a ninth-grader, “you don’t need to take algebra because you’re not going down an academic track.” He sure won’t if he can’t learn math and can’t think abstractly.

Three Years of College

Many high schools offer advanced placement classes. Some even offer college-level courses in conjunction with local community colleges. Can we formalize those and push down the content of what is now a year of college so that everyone can get access to it in their public high schools?

The current estimate for a year of room and board at a college starts at around $10,000. Tuition, fees and incidentals pile on top of that. Even in-state tuition at public colleges averages about $9,500 a year. Getting students one year of what is now college somewhere cheaper would significantly reduce their costs.

Do Something Different

It is clear that an adult starting out in life with no work experience and $30,000 in debt is not loaded for success. We wish there were some grown-ups in the room who would tell them not to do that, but evidently that is not going to happen.

Nevertheless, you should understand the risks you are taking on. Look for alternatives to get the same content at lower cost. Above all, wring all possible value out of the free public education options you have available to you.

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Written by srojak

February 10, 2016 at 3:22 pm

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