Does every college student need college algebra? Does every high school student need high school algebra?

For some students, the answer to the first question is now "no" at six public universities in Arkansas: the University of Central Arkansas; Arkansas State University-Jonesboro; the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff; Arkansas Tech University; the University of Arkansas at Little Rock; and the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

Until this year, all of those universities’ students were required to take college algebra in order to graduate. Now a new course, quantitative literacy, is being offered for those who aren’t studying in a math- or science-related field. Instead of all the Xs and Ys, the course offers practical instruction in areas such as personal finance and statistics. Students are taught subjects like how to figure their car payment and how to decide for themselves if a political poll is valid.

The course is being offered for a simple reason: Some college students simply don’t do well in college algebra, flunk it a bunch of times, pay a bunch of tuition money, and end up not graduating with a degree in their field.

The question of algebra’s importance is especially relevant in Arkansas, which has one of the nation’s lowest percentages of college graduates. Gov. Beebe has set a goal of doubling the state’s graduation rate by 2025, and in the past five years Arkansas has seen college enrollment gains of 17 percent. However, only 37.3 percent of four-year students graduate within six years, and the longer it takes, the more it costs and the less likely they are to finish.

Mathematics educators from the six universities started meeting last year to plan the course, with some of the heavy lifting done by two professors, Dr. Charles Watson at UCA and Dr. Bernie Madison at Fayetteville, both of whom already had done some work on the concept. The goal was to create a course that would impart math skills in a different way than college algebra and still be rigorous enough to count for college credit.

As a math professor, of course Watson said he appreciated the importance of algebra, which serves as gateway for more advanced math work and as a basis for skills needed in business and other areas. But he’s also seen students who were perfectly capable of graduating with a non-math-related degree take his course four or five times and then throw up their hands because they just couldn’t grasp the concepts.

"I’m a mathematician by training, and I firmly believe that there’s something there that everybody could learn, if it’s nothing more than the discipline of doing mathematics, and I believe that’s important," he told me. "Now, could we do that discipline of mathematics using a different context? And I think the answer is yes."

If not all college students need college algebra, then do all high school students need high school algebra? "Absolutely," Watson said, but political scientist Dr. Andrew Hacker from City University of New York disagrees. Hacker raised some eyebrows with a recent opinion column in the New York Times in which he wrote that algebra trips up too many high school students who could otherwise succeed, that it really doesn’t teach a lot of important skills, and that it’s only needed for a small percentage of jobs in the workplace. He’s all for math – just not algebra.

The Arkansas graduation rate in 2011 was 81 percent, according to the state Department of Education. How responsible algebra was for the other 19 percent is impossible to say. In the latest statewide benchmark exams for Algebra I, 78 percent of Arkansas students scored proficient or advanced – better than scores in geometry (73 percent) and eighth grade math (63 percent).

If there’s any serious talk of lessening the algebra requirement at the high school level, I haven’t heard it. Algebra is part of the Common Core curriculum, to which the state is in the process of switching. In fact, some algebra skills are being pushed into lower grades under Common Core. Students on the current Smart Core track, and that’s most of them, are required to complete four math units, and algebra courses are two of them.

You probably took both of them. Remember anything?

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Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is brawnersteve@mac.com