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Universities May Be Pushing Black, Latino And Native American Students Away From Lucrative Majors

A college student wearing a backpack pushes a glass door open.
GPA thresholds can limit access to high-earning majors, including STEM, nursing and finance.
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College majors can have a strong impact on how much graduates earn over a lifetime, and a new study shows that universities may be pushing Black, Latino and Native American students away from high-earning fields.

The report is a joint effort by researchers at Harvard and UC Santa Barbara. It signals that underrepresented students have been steadily earning degrees in less-lucrative majors since the mid-1990s, in contrast to other students. This stratification, the report adds, is primarily a result of GPA restrictions that bar some students from declaring popular majors, a practice that proponents say keeps students away from fields where they might not succeed.

But many of those fields are those tied to lucrative labor markets, like STEM, nursing and finance — the kind of fields that can offer significant social mobility.

The new study examined the effect of major restrictions at UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Santa Barbara and UC Santa Cruz in recent decades. It found that, between 1975 and 2018, enrollment for “underrepresented minority groups” in lucrative majors dropped by 20%.

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Aashish Mehta, a professor at UC Santa Barbara who specializes in economic development and inequality, is one of the report’s authors. He warned against chalking up the report’s findings to the idea that underrepresented students aren’t ready for the rigors of college instruction.

Underrepresented, first-generation students who are getting in now are actually better prepared than the ones in the past.
— Aashish Mehta, UC Santa Barbara

“Because the university is trying to maintain diversity and because we have an inequitable K-12 education system in this country, I hear people advance the idea that we’re seeing this kind of stratification because we’re letting in students who may have weaker academic preparation,” Mehta said.

He and his colleague examined incoming students’ standardized test scores and found that “underrepresented, first-generation students who are getting in now are actually better prepared than the ones in the past.”

Departments also justify major restrictions by arguing that they’re needed to prevent over-enrollment, a challenge that can arise at public institutions like the UC system, which has been admitting record numbers of undergraduates.

This rationale is more understandable, said Mehta. “If a department becomes overwhelmed by the number of students that major in that subject, there are simply not enough faculty to go around to keep the class sizes manageable. And unless you do something to match student-faculty numbers, you could have big declines in quality.”

“The question is: What do we do about it? And that starts to get difficult because to solve this problem, it’s going to cost money,” he added.

Adding Supports

In light of this challenge, faculty and administrators at UC Santa Barbara “have been very forthcoming with time and support for initiatives to make improvements,” Mehta said. This includes a growing number of "bridge" classes designed to ease transitions into upper level coursework; direct support to students through the various programs; and several initiatives to make classes more responsive to first generation student needs.

(LAist reached out to UC administration for comment, but had not heard back by publication time.)

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The recent study builds on previous research by the same authors, which looks at the long-term effects of a policy that prevented students with low introductory grades from declaring an economics major at UC Santa Cruz. It found that students who weren’t able to pursue the major they were interested in may have missed out on as much as $1 million over their lifetime.

The takeaway, said Mehta, is not that everyone should major in economics. But “if you have an interest in something and you’re denied the opportunity,” he said, “it costs you.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has made STEM one of his department’s priorities. The department’s website declares that “A child's zip code should not determine their STEM literacy and educational options.”

In Mehta’s view, that goal remains elusive. At the college level, he said, “The students with the most to gain from having educational choice are the ones who are most at risk of getting kicked out.”

What questions do you have about higher education?