Equity in College Mathematics: What does the data tell us about poverty and race?

I am very proud of my department for our decision to do some serious work on equity.  We are having focused discussions at meetings and in hallways, we are bringing up equity in other discussions, and have examined quite a bit of data.  I want to highlight a little bit of that data.  This post will focus on the role of poverty in the pursuit of equity in college mathematics.

Like many colleges, my institution provides access to a centralized data reporting function (“Argos” in our case).  We can use this database to extract and summarize data related to our courses, and the database includes some student characteristics (such as race, ethnicity, and sex … self-reported).  In addition, the database connects to direct institutional records dealing with enrollment status and financial aid.  The primary piece of data from the financial aid record is a field called “Pell Eligible”.

As you know, Pell Grants are based on need; this usually means an annual income of less than $30,000.  Students are not required to apply, even if they would qualify for the maximum award.  However, we do know that students do not receive a Pell ‘award’ unless they have a low income.  For us, this “Pell Eligibility” is the closest thing we have to a poverty indicator.

When we summarize student grades by race and Pell Eligibility (across ALL courses in our department), this is the result.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This graph has two “take aways” for me.  First, poverty is likely associated with lower rates of passing.  Secondly, the impact of race on outcomes is even stronger.  Note that the “Pell” group is lower than the non-Pell group for all races, and that the “Black non-Pell” group has lower outcomes than the non-Pell hispanics or whites.

The situation is actually worse than this chart suggests.  The distribution of ‘poverty’ (as estimated by Pell eligibility) is definitely unequal: 70% of the black group is Pell eligible, while only 40% of the white group is Pell eligible (with hispanics at a middle rate).

I am seeing a strong connection between our goal of promoting equity and the goals of social justice.  As long as significant portions of our population live in poverty, we will not achieve equity in the mathematics classroom … awarding ‘financial aid’ does not cancel out the impacts of poverty.  In addition, as long as some groups in our population are served by under-resourced and struggling schools, we will not achieve equity in the mathematics classroom.  This latter statement refers to the fact that many states have policies like Michigan’s which allow those with resources to have a choice about ‘better schools’, while limiting state funding for public schools (and simultaneously attacking the teaching profession).

In our region, the majority of the black students attending my college came from the urban school district.  This urban school district had a proud history through the 1980s, with outcomes equal to any suburban school in the area.  However, dramatic changes have occurred … even though that district has made significant progress in recent years, there is no doubt that the urban schools are not preparing students for college.  Poverty plays a role within that school district, and the interaction between race and poverty is again unequal: more blacks live in poverty within the city than other races.

The social justice movement seeks to provide all groups with equal access to upward mobility, combined with a reasonably high probability of escaping poverty, based on a presumption of effort.  Barriers to progress are addressed as systemically as possible.  College mathematics is currently one of the barriers to progress in social justice.  Modern curricula do not solve this barrier, given the data I’ve seen (though we are early in that process of change).

If we see our role as separate from equity and social justice, we are enabling the inequities to continue.  This is a set of issues that we can not remain silent about.  Even if we are not committed to social justice, we need to work on these barriers for the good of our profession.  You might begin by discussing social justice issues with your friends or colleagues who teach sociology or anthropology, quite a few of whom have a background in ‘social problems’.

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6 Comments

  • By schremmer, April 6, 2017 @ 3:26 pm

    Re. “This urban school district had a proud history through the 1980s, with outcomes equal to any suburban school in the area. However, dramatic changes have occurred … even though that district has made significant progress in recent years, there is no doubt that the urban schools are not preparing students for college. Poverty plays a role within that school district, and the interaction between race and poverty is again unequal: more blacks live in poverty within the city than other races.

    Here is just a guess of someone who was educated in a most “authoritarian” system. Somewhere along the line, it was proven to us that “– • – = +”
    Somehow, I missed the proof, or didn’t understand it, or ignored it. Here is the point though: For the next couple of years, I dutifully used “– • – = +
    ” even though it clearly made no sense as far as I was concerned. But I was middle class, trusted the system and so knew that I better get along with whatever the professor would say. But, and here is my thought, being poor and minority hardly incite one to confidence in the system. Particularly one in which things are not even “proven”.

  • By Jack Rotman, April 7, 2017 @ 7:52 am

    That’s an interesting comment about trusting ‘the system’.
    As I observe classroom attitudes and behaviors, I can’t tell who is accepting it ‘cuz I said so’ as opposed to ‘makes no sense but I am not asking anything’. More than accepting without question I think students have been trained to hide their intellectual condition (confused or ‘that makes sense’ or ‘that rocks’). However, I do a lot of one-on-one work in my classes (they become like a workshop at times), and I’ve not noticed any pattern in which students are willing to ask individually ‘why is that the way it works’.

  • By schremmer, April 6, 2017 @ 3:31 pm

    If I may be so bold, I would like to refer to a piece I once wrote—and which was promptly rejected.

    Reasonable Mathematics: A Political Necessity

  • By schremmer, April 6, 2017 @ 3:41 pm

    I am having a terrible time with this site—which does not allow for any mistake. The above url should be:

    (I copied http twice) Sorry
    –schremmer

  • By schremmer, April 6, 2017 @ 3:41 pm

    This is getting ridiculous:

    Reasonable Mathematics: A Political Necessity

  • By schremmer, April 10, 2017 @ 10:25 am

    Re “students have been trained to hide their intellectual condition

    I completely agree.

    Re “I’ve not noticed any pattern in which students are willing to ask individually” … anything. Still, naturally, while it never really happens during the first third of a semester — and how could it, a few students after that begin asking “dangerous” questions. And then a few more do. But there remain those who, to the bitter end, never do. A few because, whatever the reason they are completely at see, but others even though they could still “recover” if they just tried. So, there certainly are depths of diffidence.

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