Monday, December 14, 2009

A Quantitative Equation: Why the Math Skills of Too Many University Graduates Just Don't Add Up

By: Sarah Danielle Lorimor

Many of us were likely relieved when we finished college and shut our textbooks once and for all. Depending on our chosen course of study, perhaps we were most relieved to finish that biology course or that literature class, or perhaps we were ecstatic to no longer solve trigonometry problems every night. But as university students graduate this winter and upcoming spring and begin their employment search, it's undeniable that students with certain academic backgrounds will on average have a much more successful job search with a much more lucrative starting salary than others.

But what are these skills that command the attention of human resource hiring managers and demand higher pay? Despite the moaning of so many students who claimed they would never use trigonometry in the real world, it all comes down to math. According to a CNN Money report detailing the recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), an organization that tracks recent graduates employment offers, “the top 15 highest earning college degrees all have one thing in common – math skills.” Engineering students held most of these top positions, with computer scientists, construction managers and accountants making up the rest of this high paid group.

According to this same NACE study, the average petroleum engineering graduate receives a starting annual salary of $83,121, the average chemical engineering graduate receives a starting annual salary of $64,902, the average English and communications graduate receives a starting annual salary of $35,000 and the average student who has studied social work will receive a starting annual salary of approximately $29,000. Clearly, there is a sharp divide between students who have spent the majority of their university days in courses that stress quantitative skills and formal reasoning and students who have spent their time reading challenging novels or writing insightful papers. But why? According to Ed Koc, Director of Research at NACE, “If you have [math] skills, you are an extremely valuable asset. We don't generate enough people like that in this country.” The numbers agree: history majors make up of approximately 16% of all university graduates, while all fields of engineering combined only comprise 4% of university graduates. It comes down to supply and demand, and with not enough students offering a solid mathematical and scientific background, the students who can offer these skills are provided with greater job security and fatter paychecks than their liberal arts and social science counterparts.

So does this mean that students should no longer choose to major in liberal arts or social science? Absolutely not. As companies become more complex and less cohesive, the need for clearly written reports and strong communication will only grow. According to a 2004 survey by the National Commission on Writing, one-third of employees at blue-chip companies can't write well, and for these massive companies, this is a tremendous problem. According to this same 2004 survey, employers spend over 3 billion dollars annually for remedial training, much of it focusing on writing and communication skills.

Liberal arts and social science majors, as opposed to their engineering counterparts, are more likely to have taken numerous classes with open discussion and debate-type formats. Because of this, their communication skills are likely more developed. In business, leaders need to identify an end goal, set a direction towards that goal and then effectively mobilize others towards that goal. Without proper communication skills, both written and verbal, it won't matter how well someone did in differential equations or systems theory. But to be fair, students with excellent communication skills and no formal reasoning or quantitative abilities will have the exact same problems; business decisions have to be made on empirical evidence and mathematical projections. It's a two way street. Still, the skills that a student will develop in a liberal arts course of study are absolutely useful, yes. But unfortunately, these skills are often not recognized right away, and students with mathematical and quantitative abilities will still have far greater success both finding a job and bringing in a solid paycheck upon graduation.

For liberal arts and social science majors, this is discouraging news. However, it should be a problem with an easy solution: require students of all disciplines to take more challenging mathematics courses. After all, an English major with strong statistical abilities should be an ideal candidate for a position as a research associate or operations analyst, where strong writing skills must be paired with strong quantitative abilities. A student of social work with financial modeling and economics experience is qualified to manage budgets and make funding decisions for social outreach programs. Any liberal arts major that attends law school with the ability to understand the concepts behind engineering and medical devices will earn far more in patent law than someone without these skills practicing as a criminal defense lawyer. So why not couple a communications major with a few calculus courses?

Because too many students just can't do that. There's sometimes a good reason why many students choose to major in liberal arts; they just feel as if they can't understand the material required in mathematics and science. And unfortunately, these hunches about personal mathematical abilities are too often true.

A recent City University of New York (CUNY) study on the academic readiness of 200 college freshman produced shocking and troubling results. Out of these students, 90% of them could not solve a simple algebra problem. One out of three students did not know how to convert a decimal to a fraction. "These results are shocking," said City College Professor Stanley Ocken, a co-writer of this report. "They show that a disturbing proportion of New York City high school graduates lack basic skills." And indeed, with numbers like this, it's hard to argue that in a school where up to 70% of students come from the New York City public school system, that something isn't going wrong before these students get to college.

But on the other hand, it's not like these students were tested on trigonometric functions of triangles or even graphs of linear functions. These students were tested on basic mathematical skills, and in almost all non-remedial math programs in all public schools, students learn how to convert decimals to fractions by the fifth grade. Basic algebra is learned by the eighth grade, earlier if you are an honors student. These skills are then the building blocks for new mathematical concepts until the end of high school; if students don't understand these skills, it should be painfully obvious to them and they are then forced to ask for help.

After all, it's hard to believe that a school system doesn't teach middle school aged students basic algebra principles. It's easier to believe that some schools just have large student populations that choose not to pay attention or seek extra help when it becomes obvious that they have fallen behind in their mathematics courses. Or perhaps some schools have teachers that are just so overwhelmed with the unruly behavior of their large classes that students begin to dismiss their timid attempts at teaching. But it's baffling to think of how a college freshman can have gone through high school, never learning algebra without at least knowing that his or her education was lacking in some major way. It's even more of a mystery how a student can not realize that he or she cannot convert a decimal to a fraction. It's highly unlikely that these students were not offered the information, instruction and help they needed to master these principles; it's more likely that these students simply did not take advantage of the information and resources provided to them. Absolutely, some students will have a tougher learning environment; all teachers are not created equal, and many students do not have parents or support at home that are able to help them with their math homework. But ultimately, it's the responsibility of the individual to ensure that they understand what is being taught in the classroom; whether it's through outside tutoring through nonprofit outreach groups or online help. Everyone has a bad teacher at some point in their life, and everyone is equally responsible to rise above that poor learning situation.

In any case, the fact remains that these universities are in a troubling situation. With so many students lacking elementary math skills, it's difficult to mandate statistics or calculus and expect a reasonable graduation rate. And CUNY is not alone in this predicament; at UMASS-Boston, a liberal arts major is only required to take Quantitative Reasoning, a mathematics course actually lower than College Algebra. Some of the topics that this course covers include: “Converting Units” and “Simplifying Expressions with Fractional Exponents”. These topics have their place, of course, but that place should be primarily in a middle school or high school classroom, and not in a university lecture hall. While schools that attract non-traditional students that may choose to refresh their math skills would do well to offer remedial courses such as this one, this should not be the minimum requirement for liberal arts students. At UMASS-Boston, a free math resource center with free tutors is available to all students taking courses up through calculus, and so students have the resources needed to take statistics or even a calculus course and boost their math skills.

But other universities do require extensive quantitative courses for all majors, and their graduates thrive because of it. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), all students are required to take two semesters of calculus and one semester of physics regardless of their course of study. And this requirement isn't driving students from the university. According to TIME magazine, MIT's dropout rate is around 20%, far less than UMASS-Boston's 67%, as reported by the New York Times. CUNY's dropout rate is just below the national average, at around 50%.

Obviously, the demographics of these schools are vastly different, and one would expect the typical freshman at the engineering and technology heavy MIT to embrace calculus courses; this heavy quantitative requirement is likely not an issue for most of MIT's student body. And on the other hand, one could even understand why students from disadvantaged backgrounds attending public universities may need a little extra tutoring or help in order to complete a statistics course. One could even understand how a 40 year old non-traditional student at CUNY might need a few refresher courses before undertaking calculus. If students are struggling with basic mathematical principles when they first arrive at a university, despite the fact that their mathematical illiteracy is most likely very well their own fault and stems from their reluctance to seek extra help and tutoring during their middle and high school years, universities and colleges need to offer remedial courses for them. Perhaps for every university, the standard should be slightly different. Maybe all students should have to take pre-calculus or statistics. Perhaps one semester of calculus for all students should be mandated. But one thing is very clear: math skills rule this world, and without them, college graduates will face a much tougher employment search, likely have less job security and earn far less than their math-savvy counterparts.

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