College admissions experts and workforce development professionals agree that math plays a significant role in access to postsecondary institutions and financially stable careers. 

Yet math is often left out of conversations on education equity in the earliest grade levels when students need to be laying the foundation for educational opportunities in their futureultimately creating a barrier that prevents some students from earning a postsecondary credential. 

Our education system consistently uses math in ways that filter students out of opportunity, often based on race, gender, and class. The results of this type of educational redlining are painfully visible even before ninth grade, when students in high-poverty schools are far less likely than students in low-poverty schools to have completed Algebra 1. 

Across New York State, students who are low-income and students of color were less likely than their non low-income and White peers to be enrolled in an advanced math class in grade 9, even when they scored proficient on the state math assessment in grade 7. 

Equally troubling, high schools with higher percentages of students participating in the free and reduced lunch programs are more likely to offer dead-end math courses instead of courses that prepare students for college or qualify for college credit, such as Advanced Placement (AP) courses. 

As a result, scores of students of color and students from low-income backgrounds require remedial coursework in college, and there is overwhelming evidence that students enrolled in developmental math courses are less likely to graduate, compared to students with similar academic preparedness who are placed in credit-bearing courses. 

As of four years agothe City University of New York (CUNY) identified 81 percent of Black and 78 percent of Latinx first-time freshmen enrolled in associate programs as needing math remediation. 

And the situation could get worse. Given the current educational disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic, an unprecedented rate of low-income students and students of color risk being placed in non-credit remedial math courses upon entering college.  

Several states have eliminated traditional non-credit course requirements and phased in reforms, such as the implementation of corequisite classes to increase college completion rates. Non-credit bearing remedial courses are not just ineffective, they are costly and cut into valuable financial aid offered to qualifying students. Repeated failure in a developmental math course can deter students from progressing in college, regardless of the applicability of the math content to their academic interest. Corequisite credit-bearing courses provide students with needed support in a single semester, allowing them to graduate on pace with their peers. 

Students from low-income backgrounds and students of color shouldn’t have to absorb the consequences of insidious practices that stifle progress by using math as a gatekeeper. If we do not fortify education by offering proven pathways to graduation and career success, the economic damage to historically disadvantaged students could be irreversible. 

The reality is a college degree is the greatest deterrent to poverty. Access to quality courses means access to quality of life. Who gets selected for advanced math and, thus, lucrative career paths, should not be subject to redlining based on race or income level.

Melodie Baker is the National Policy Director for Just Equations.