Equity – Proms, Post-secondary and Pathways

Written by: Jordan Tinney

Published On: November 27th 2022

It’s that time of year, and as my son approaches the mid-way point of grade 12, two things are before us. We’re neck deep in post-secondary applications and, equally importantly to him, it is also time for the winter prom. As I watch these two things unfold, issues of equity are thrust before me in a light that isn’t new, but it just feels a bit more pointed for some reason. First, let’s tackle the prom.

As he weighs the decision of whether to go or not, one of the most important aspects is what are his friends doing. As all the students consider options, one of the students he knows says that they are not sure if they are going to go or not. He asks why. The response he hears is that it’s $15 to get in and they are not sure if they can afford it. We talk about it at night, as it hits home for him that not all children have the luxury to go simply based on the cost.

I have no doubt from experience know that if any child felt that such celebrations were unaffordable, that the school would make it happen. Schools do many things right down to finding clothes and there are amazing charities that help as well. Regardless, I have this little face in my mind and the bottom line is that they have to ask. They have to disclose their circumstances and bear their soul that they don’t have enough money to be with their peers for this event. I wonder for how many children this is an issue and how these celebratory events can sometimes exclude.

Mathematics Pathways and Post-Secondary Entrance

On to post-secondary. This has been an historical thread for me but I’ve often thought about, and talked about, how the mathematics pathways we set up serve the purpose of streaming the process for post-secondary in a way that is sometime hidden from the larger public. I am not writing as a critic of the mathematics curriculum, I am just trying to highlight how the curriculum and its consequences when wrapped with post-secondary entrance requirements, eliminate large numbers of students from access.

I click on post-secondary institution A – the entrance requirements for undergrads coming from a high school. In virtually every single category, the minimum requirement for entrance is Pre-Calculus 11 or Foundations of Math 12. These are not easy courses. For many students for whom math isn’t their top strength, when they get to grade 10, they know that the paths split three ways. Only two of these paths are gateways to most post-secondary institutions. When you visit post-secondary entrance requirements, it’s clear that only one pathway is the gold standard and that’s calculus. I could go on at length here, it’s an opinion, but the “race to calculus” has always seen to me like an enormous barrier for students. I also believe that mathematics has long been uses as the primary sorting mechanism for entrance to post-secondary because somehow, it’s seen a far more rigorous than other courses and it’s universally required for graduation while other courses with the exception of English are not. Let’s look at examples.

At UBC, if I read correctly, Pre-Calc 11 or Foundations of Math 12 are the minimum required for entrance into music. This is also true for architecture and landscape architecture, Arts, and Fine Arts. Let’s go to Queens, where Foundations of Mathematics 12 is only accepted for entrance to Nursing or

Health Sciences. For all other programs the minimum requirement is Calculus 12 or Pre-Calculus 12.  Let’s randomly choose the University of Saskatchewan and Archeology or Anthropology – or even “undeclared” Arts – Foundations 12 or Pre-Calc 12 with the statement that “Students can be admitted into this college with a mathematics deficiency but are encouraged to consult the college upon admission to plan how to clear the deficiency.” I think this says it best across the country. Anything less than a high-level grade 12 math credit (or equivalent) is seen as a “deficiency.”

I could show many more examples but really the point is that education should serve to open doors for our youth. Those doors shouldn’t get increasingly shut as you enter the world of math at the grade 10 level let alone grade 12. Many universities I looked at don’t even mention grade 11 courses in the minimum requirements. It’s Foundations of Math 12 or Pre-Calc 12 or no entrance. Some institutions are showing us new hope.

University of British Columbia – Okanagan Campus, has a student profile as a significant entrance requirement. Decreasing the necessity of X courses, they want to know “who you are” as a person and as a learner. A few years ago Kwantlen Polytechnic University ran a program based on portfolio entrance with the question “how can create a different pathway so that [admissions] is inclusive of everyone?”

The Need for a New Business Model

Plato once said, “our need will be the real creator.” If we want to actually do something different, we need to build a sense of urgency. Post-secondary is also big business. As long as these institutions are satisfied that their existing post-secondary business models are working, there will be no need to change. When you hear of the demand, and the incredibly high bar to get in, why would you change your model?

Then there is the application process itself which costs hundreds of dollars just to hit “send.” After our applications were completed, I wondered how much money was collected in applications for students who will not be granted entrance. UBC reports receiving 40,000 applications in one single year, with roughly two thirds receiving acceptance. With a modest application fee of $75, that’s $1,000,000 in application fees collected for students who were turned down. The University of Toronto reports receiving close to 80,000 applications with 17,000 receiving entrance. With a larger application fee of close to $250 (including a $90 documentation fee), my handy calculation says that’s close to $16M in revenue just to say no. I don’t need Calc 12 to figure out that business model.

I am certain that our post-secondary institutions have broad statements with a commitment to equity. I love education, I’ve devoted my life to it. I’m a math teacher, it’s my favourite subject. If we really want to demonstrate equity then we need to turn the lens past our business models and funnels of entrance requirements and fees and to ask ourselves if we are really achieving the equity we want from the business models we have. Finally, as school districts around the country look at their graduation and completion rates for grade twelves and the percentages of students who go directly to post-secondary, then they also need to look beyond to their partners in post-secondary and ask about what equity means when it comes to who truly has an equal opportunity to pursue higher learning. While these institutions may easily be able to demonstrate the growing diversity of their student body, that body still has to pass the gates to get to the door and I wonder if that diversity is truly representative of the demographics and capabilities of the students in our schools.