Open letter regarding intermediate Algebra pre-requisites for Introductory Economics
The California State University (CSU) system has created a lower division transfer pattern (LDTP) in order to simplify community college transfer requirements. There may be merit in such an endeavor. However, one new mandate being pushed under the LDTP is an Intermediate Algebra pre-requisite for Introductory Economics courses. Courses without the Algebra pre-requisite will no longer be transferable to CSUs that adopt this requirement. Only a few have done so at this date but it seems that more are likely to adopt this requirement. This letter is an objection to this requirement. I will use three basic economic concepts to make my argument. No math will be required.
Barrier to entry
Most people have a poor understanding of economic concepts. We are painfully economically illiterate. Basic Algebra is used in almost all Intro Econ classes. The LDPT pre-requisite is Intermediate Algebra. This may sound like a trivial distinction for many instructors – but it is not. Many prominent economists are catching on to the failures of traditional Intro Econ courses. Please read the introduction to Naked Economics by Charles Wheelan (of The Economist) or listen to the Econtalk.org podcast between Russ Roberts and Robert Frank for two recent examples. An Intermediate Algebra pre-req needlessly limits the number of students who have a chance to learn economics. Those denied entry may well be the students who might benefit most from an economics class.
One of the lessons of economics is that interventions should be placed directly on the behavior you are trying to modify. Indirect interventions lead to unintended consequences. To reduce carbon emissions a direct tax on carbon is less distortionary than an indirect tax on cars or miles driven. Presumably the goal of the CSUs is to enforce their requirement that all incoming students have passed Intermediate Algebra. That is a fine standard. I suggest achieving it by requiring that all incoming students pass Intermediate Algebra. If they want to achieve the goal indirectly then they should place an Intermediate Algebra pre-requisite on English and History classes as well.
One final lesson of economics is that when you are not paying the costs of your actions it is easy to discount them. The costs of this policy are not being paid by the CSUs. The costs will be suffered by community college faculty and administrators who must deal with it. And by society to the extent this keeps students away. No other institutions have such a requirement. We will have to create special sections for the small percentage of our students that want to transfer as econ majors to a CSU. Even then I doubt we will change our content much – as we already know what works best. It creates work for faculty and administrators, as well as confusion for students. I wish the decision-makers could internalize these costs prior to making such a sweeping change.
If you agree that such a pre-requisite would be a mistake then please talk to other instructors and voice your concerns to the CSU Economics Department Chairs as they are the only ones that can correct this. You might also want to express your concerns to the LDTP steering committee (members listed below):
Mark McKellip (CSU Chancellor's Office): firstname.lastname@example.org Dr. Barbara Swerkes, CSU Faculty Chair (email@example.com) Dr. Marshall Cates, LDTP Consultant (firstname.lastname@example.org) Dr. Gary Grudnitski, SDSU LDTP Economics Chair (email@example.com)
Brian Evans Foothill College Economics Dept