Bridging the Opportunity Divide

The Math Class That Could Cut the College Dropout Rate

October 21, 2014
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The Math Class That Could Cut the College Dropout Rate
Higher learning institutions are experimenting with a new approach to teaching math. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
A new approach for any student who's ever wondered, "Why do I need algebra?"

Math has never been a popular subject in school. For every Einstein-like math whiz, there are countless more students who get frustrated with its long list of procedures and rules and wonder why it’s even necessary for everyday life.

This struggle with math can put a pupil at a serious disadvantage as he or she seeks higher education. In fact, a whopping 70 percent of community college students never complete the remedial math courses that are required for a degree. Unfortunately, this prompts many students to quit school because these classes can suck away time, money and drive. And as we previously reported, while 40 percent of the country’s undergrads choose the community college route, their odds of walking away with a degree is low; only a third of of them will graduate.

For those who are trying to climb out of poverty and into the middle class, dropping out of school is a heavy price to pay — those with associates degrees earn about $10,000 more annually than a college dropout.

To help reduce the startling dropout rate, several higher learning institutions are experimenting with a new approach to teaching math — the Pathways Project from the The Carnegie Foundation (a renowned education policy and research center).

The courses, called Quantway and Statway, are designed for students who might struggle with abstract equations and formulas. It’s math for students who might think, “I don’t want to be an engineer, why do I need to know algebra?” Instead, students learn real, practical applications of math — think: filing taxes, interest rates on credit cards, gas prices — to fulfill their college math credits.

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Remarkably, more than 50 percent of Pathways students achieved their math credits within a single year, whereas only 15 percent of students in the traditional sequence complete their math credits (and that’s in two years), NPR reports. Since the Pathways Project kicked off in Fall 2011, there are now 49 institutions are teaching the courses, including the California State University system and community colleges in 14 states.

What makes these Pathways classes different is that students learn how to use math to better understand the world around them. In a Quantway class, as Pathways Project director Karen Klipple illustrates in this video, students are asked if it makes sense for them to buy a hybrid car. They answer questions like, “How much money will you save in gas over a period of time?” or “What will the interest be if you take out a loan?”

If you watch the clip below, it looks like the Pathways model is not only helping students pass their math classes and put a college degree within reach, it’s also generating a real love for math.

There might be more Einsteins out there than we think.

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