“A New Calculus for College Admissions” Explores the Disconnect between Innovations in Math Education and Traditional College Admission Practices 

BERKELEY, CALIF.—Although today’s technology-rich environment has changed the way math is used in many fields, college admission still relies heavily on decades-old math expectations, viewing calculus on a transcript as a gold standard while slighting other rigorous math offerings.

A New Calculus for College Admissions: How Policy, Practice, and Perceptions of High School Math Education Limit Equitable Access to College—a new report by Just Equations, in partnership with National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC)—explores evolving views of the role that math plays in college admission. Through a national survey and a series of interviews, the report examines four-year college and university admission policies on high school math course-taking, the often-unwritten practices that determine how those policies operate, and the perceptions that influence evaluations of students’ high school records.

Decisions about who gets admitted to college, especially to selective institutions, are the result of a complex mix of policy and practice, and math expectations are part of that mix. A New Calculus for College Admissions notes that regardless of whether calculus is necessary for a student’s college major, entrenched beliefs about calculus as a sign of rigor can play a significant role in admissions.

“As long as colleges and high schools still view calculus as a singular sign of academic status, students and families seeking entry to the most competitive campuses will continue to view the course as a down payment on their ticket to get in,” said Veronica Anderson, education expert and report author.

Since access to advanced math courses varies starkly by race and income, such admissions approaches reflect historical designs that valued exclusivity over inclusivity, according to a January report by NACAC and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. That report, Toward a More Equitable Future for Postsecondary Access—funded by Lumina Foundation—called upon higher education institutions to “reconcile exclusivity with equity” and “radically rethink” admission criteria.

“High schools and colleges have the power to broaden math options and expand opportunity for all students,” said David Hawkins, chief education and policy officer for  NACAC. “As new math course options flourish at the college level, admission policies and practices need to evolve so high schools can modernize their math offerings without jeopardizing students’ chances of college admission.”

To support such efforts with respect to admission requirements, A New Calculus for College Admissions synthesizes key findings from a NACAC-led  national survey of admissions officers. The survey confirmed that, contrary to conventional wisdom, Calculus is rarely required for university admission outside of specific majors, such as engineering, physical science, and math.

In fact, some selective institutions, most prominently the University of California, have made clear that non-traditional courses such as data science are not only accepted for admission but are considered advanced math courses. AP Statistics has the same weight as AP Calculus. However, the report highlights the mixed messages high school students often receive about math classes, leading many to pursue calculus to err on the safe side. Likewise, according to survey responses, even when admissions officers encourage courses other than calculus, applicants and high school counselors can be reluctant to give up calculus and the competitive edge they believe it imparts.

A New Calculus for College Admissions shares ways to build awareness of new math pathways and deepen conversations across campuses about aligning admissions requirements with 21st-century math. Strategies that higher education leaders, national associations, state agencies, and other funders can pursue include:

  • Increase knowledge and understanding of new high school and college math options through research and dissemination.

  • Foster intersegmental, interdisciplinary, and cross-functional dialogues to inform development of new policies. Participants should include math faculty, faculty from disciplines that use mathematics, high school teachers and administrators, high school counselors, and other college-access specialists.

  • Address bias and misperceptions about math pathways through training for college admissions officers and high school counselors.


About A New Calculus for College Admissions

For A New Calculus for College Admissions, Just Equations partnered with the National Association for College Admission Counseling to research the role of advanced high school math courses in college admissions. The goal was to learn about how higher education institutions weigh these subjects among entrance requirements. The survey was sent to admissions officers at 1,250 four-year colleges and universities. Among the 137 institutions that responded, 58 percent were private nonprofits and 42 percent were public entities.

The report includes key observations from in-depth interviews with admissions professionals (e.g., deans of admission, directors of admission, or admission officers) at 15 public and private four-year institutions. These discussions provided more nuance on admissions policies, processes, and practices, especially in the realm of decisions that relate to math requirements and advanced math course-taking in high school.

About Just Equations

Just Equations reconceptualizes the role of mathematics in ensuring education equity for students. An independent resource on the equity dimensions of math education in the transition from high school to college, Just Equations advances evidence-based strategies to ensure that math policies give all students the quantitative foundation they need to succeed in college and beyond.


The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), founded in 1937, is an organization of more than 25,000 professionals from around the world dedicated to serving students as they make choices about pursuing postsecondary education. NACAC’s mission is to empower college admission counseling professionals through education, advocacy, and community.