HBCU Symposium discussion of math skills

In continuing our discussion of the Centennial HBCU Symposium held June 3-4 in Research Triangle Park, NC, I wanted to briefly follow up a theme that emerged several times across the diverse talks.

Outside of a high dropout rate, a major challenge to African-American students succeeding in universities is poor preparation in math skills from high schools. Of course, this is not just a problem of this demographic but, sadly, is a major challenge we see everywhere in the US and has been especially evident in our ScienceBlogs annual support of the DonorsChoose project.

This point seems obvious but math skills are far more important than just for success in the STEMM disciplines.

In the June 9th edition of The New York Times, Bob Tedeschi discusses a study (PDF) with senior author Columbia University business professor, Stephan Meier, on the role that poor math skills may be playing in the current mortgage foreclosure epidemic.

The respondents were asked five questions, with the first requiring borrowers to divide 300 by 2, and the second to calculate 10 percent of 1,000. (Since the survey was conducted by telephone, the questioners did not know who was using a calculator.)

About 16 percent of the respondents answered at least one of the first two questions incorrectly. Mr. Meier said that the results were consistent among all levels of education and income.

Over all, 21 percent of the respondents whose math abilities placed them in the bottom quarter of the survey experienced foreclosure, versus 7 percent of those in the top quarter.

Note that the findings challenge the idea that educational level is proportional to facility in math skills.

Eileen Anderson, from the nonprofit Community Development Corporation of Long Island, a nonprofit housing organization was quoted at the end of the article:

Borrowers who receive prepurchase buyer education are less likely to end up in foreclosure than those who do not, she added.

"In our programs," Ms. Anderson said, "we're doing the math with them, not for them."

And better-educated borrowers are not exempt, either.

"People say they're doctors, so they don't really need it," she said. "So what? We see doctors who took out loans they didn't understand, and who are in foreclosure now."

I'd love to hear from university educators around the country and world, especially those who teach freshman, about how well prepared their students are with mathematics skills (or "maths" for our British colleagues). I submit that this is *not* just a challenge for HBCU students.


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