A Silver Bullet for Utah’s College Graduation Rates?

Math is the place where higher education aspirations go to die. Math is the single biggest hurdle to college completion in Utah (and in the entire Nation). My idea: get high school students to complete Math 1050 while still in high school. For many students, that will satisfy all the college math they will need for their degree. Viola! That’s it—my big idea, in all its simplicity.

Some facts:

Utah high schools only require 3 years of math. In order to be prepared, though, college-bound students should take 4 years of math in high school.

Utah high schools are increasingly teaching Math 1010 (“college math”), instead of Math 3. But, Math 1010 is remedial and does not count toward any degree. And Math 3 is better.

A majority of Utah college freshman coming straight out of high school require remedial math. (And, I’m not even talking about Math 1010. I’m talking about 900-level courses).

A college student who takes a single remedial course only has a 25% likelihood of completing college.

The 6-year completion rate for Utah colleges is in the low-40s.

The change in missionary age for the LDS church will likely increase the need for remediation (and further decrease the completion rate). Math is a language. Time away from math adversely affects performance.

Why I’m excited about this idea:

Math 1050 is the degree killer. Let’s conquer it in high school through concurrent enrollment.

Utah does an awesome job at providing high school students with the opportunity to take courses that also carry college credit. But, we don’t focus those efforts very well. We treat math the same as any other subject, despite our desperate need for better math performance.

Let’s put a bounty on Math 1050. What incentives does the State need to put in place for high school students to take Math 1050? Currently, 10% of our high school students complete Math 1050. If we bump that number up to 15%, 20%, or 30%, we will see the results in our college completion rates. The State needs to treat Math 1050 concurrent enrollment as more important than any other concurrent enrollment course. Maybe we provide a mini-scholarship as an incentive for completion. Perhaps Utah colleges would be willing to match the dollar amount. (How much of a scholarship would move behavior–maybe $100 from the State plus $100 from a Utah college?).

We need to reward behaviors that are likely to produce success. A small amount of money targeting our biggest obstacle might be money well spent. What do you think?

Our discussion

  1. Robert K said

    Oh the irony. First you hinder concurrent enrollment by charging students for concurrent enrollment credits for classes that are taught at the high school, by high school teachers, and now you want to reward the same situation? You can start by removing the counter intuitive $5-per-credit charge I have to pay to the college just because my students have accepted the challenge of a college level class at their high school.

    Utah does many good things to encourage people to get a college degree. The discount for being a resident is one example. This costs Utah a significant amount of money every year. Well worth it. We want our residents to be educated. And yet we are charging these high school kids because they want to have an advantage when they reach collage?

    The idea of rewarding these students for taking these classes is one I can get behind, especially math. A good start would be to remove the $5-per-credit punishment charge.

  2. steveu said

    Robert K.

    I have written about the fees elsewhere, and refer you to that for a fuller discussion. Let me briefly explain why the fee has been added. A college credit costs around $13-150. It is fair to charge the recipients of those credits part of the fee, while still giving them a huge subsidy. Even with that, what is going on–since tuition makes up half of an institution’s revenue–is that existing college students are paying the subsidy for high school students. 20 year olds are subsidizing 16 year olds.

    USU and UVU greatly reduced the concurrent enrollment courses offered. That was because of the amount of money they lose. The fees actually are helping preserve concurrent enrollment offerings. There wasn’t any intent to charge the fees just to make life hard for high schoolers or their parents. The intent is to preserve and even extend the offerings.

    I have thought, though, that a fee waiver for Math 1050 might be part of the fix.

    If you have a follow up, Robert K, please add another comment. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, or even most of the answers, and I welcome input.

  3. Martha said

    This is a great idea, as long as the concurrent enrollment course is of the same rigor as instruction on campus, including being taught in one semester rather than on a year-long schedule. Until Utah high schools graduate better-prepared students, the baccalaureate attainment rate of Utah (and Southern Utah in particular) will continue to languish and hold back the area’s economy.

    I find it hard to believe someone would complain about paying $5 to earn a college-level credit while simultaneously receiving high school credit. Colleges and universities are offering a service that has significant additional administrative and instructional costs which should be borne by those who benefit, unless the student is eligible to receive subsidized lunch, in which case the fee should be paid by the school district. By that measure, an associate’s degree would cost $300 and a baccalaureate degree $600, tuition levels not seen for over 40 years!

    Steve, while I don’t always agree with all your ideas (about higher ed or other topics), I am consistently appreciate of your willingness to seek pragmatic solutions to the significant problems facing Utah’s public colleges and universities. Thank you.

  4. Larry Meyers said

    Appreciate your efforts to come up with improvements in our system.

    It is a pretty sad state of affairs when the State has to find ways to motivate students to pass a math class in order to get a degree.

    My deep thoughts:

    #1, Why is this class even required for most degrees? I have had moderate success in law school and legal practice and have not used any of the math that I learned in high school or college. Let those who are interested in math and need it for their careers take the class. Let the rest of us graduate without it.

    #2, I suggest we take a hard look at moving education into the private sector/free market. Not going to happen overnight, but it could be done over a period of years. Having the government running our schools and colleges is not the best model for success. Conservatives are opposed to the socialist aspects of ObamaCare, yet we continue to support socialized education.

  5. steveu said


    The short answer is that degrees require some math because of accreditation requirements. The accreditation racket (which Paul Edwards at the Deseret News has written about a few times) thwarts a lot of possible innovation in higher education.

    The answer to accreditation might relate to your second point. A lot of Americans are concluding that they don’t need a college degree, and are going after the education they need in order to do what they want to do. No doubt we are in an incredible revolution in education. Higher education now looks more like it did 200 years ago than what it will look like in 20 years, I believe. The private sector will increasingly play a role in that progress.

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