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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: **College Algebra**
“
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 11
“
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.
The quote above hints at a truth: the most advanced skill a
person has mastered 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 8
“
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.
“
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:
**College Preparatory Algebra II (remedial math)**
“
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 7 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.
“
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).
**College Preparatory Algebra I (sub-remedial math)**
College Preparatory Algebra I basically covers material from the
6 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 6 **Basic Mathematics (pre-sub-remedial)**
“
This course covers perhaps 3
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
3 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. |

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