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Restrictions on academic majors disproportionately hurt underrepresented minority groups

November 30, 2023
By: Michele Hujber

Restrictions placed on registering for high-wage-potential academic majors have had an increasingly disproportionate adverse effect on students from underrepresented minority groups (URM: Black, Hispanic, and American Indian or Alaska Native), according to research from the Bookings Institution.

The Brookings researchers arrived at their conclusions after assigning a measurement (wage-premium) of how much more—or less—a student might expect to earn depending on the major they complete. Then, they examined the wage-premium gap between URM and non-URM students. In the 1990s, that gap was less than 1%. However, the gap tripled between 2009 and 2019. They concluded that this gap showed that "URM college graduates' college majors alone may be widening the wage gap between URM and non-URM graduates by about 2.5% or about 10% of the average wage gap between the two groups." These gaps exist among graduates from such high-wage-potential majors as computer science, business, economics, engineering, and nursing students earn higher wages than graduates from different majors.

The increasing demand for high-wage-potential college majors has made restrictions on college major registration commonplace.  For example, between 2012 and 2022, the number of computer science degrees awarded by the University of Michigan rose by 355%, reports Inside Higher Ed. To meet the increase, they hired a significant number of additional faculty—recently, six per year—and built a new computer science facility. Educational institutions are imposing restrictions to limit the number of students enrolling in high-earning-potential majors to deal with the demand; the University of Michigan just started doing so in the Fall 2023 semester. Restrictions at higher education institutions include competitive application processes, personal interviews, or strict GPA requirements for introductory courses.

The restrictions have a significant impact on students, particularly those who want to major in subjects leading to high-paying jobs. Researchers from the Brookings Institution analyzed data from 106 R1 public universities and found that 55% of students who earned undergraduate degrees encountered a major restriction. When they analyzed the numbers only in high-earning-potential majors, they found that 76% of those students faced major restrictions. "These data suggest that major restrictions are most binding in the college majors that provide students with the strongest long-run economic outcomes," the Brookings researchers noted.

These gaps likely exist because of the unique barriers major restrictions create for many URM students. Many talented students with high potential may not have attended high schools that adequately prepared them to excel in their first year at college. Some may be struggling financially and are unlikely to be able to afford tutoring if they need extra help in the first year. These students may also need to juggle time away from their studies so that they can work or care for family members.

These barriers take their toll. The Brookings researchers found that URM students at four University of California campuses were three times more likely than non-URM to leave a major once a restriction was imposed. Also, they found that major restrictions led to a 20% drop in URM completion rates and that fewer lower-income students enrolled in the restricted majors. (See the SSTI article, “STEM PUSH programs increase college-level persistence for underrepresented minority students,” to learn about programs that are helping to increase college persistence among URM students.)

The Brookings researchers’ primary recommendation for addressing this issue is to increase public funding for public research universities so they can “hire more preceptors, tenured and tenure-track faculty, and untenured instructors.”

In situations where major restrictions cannot be avoided, the Brookings researchers suggest lowering the negative impacts by eliminating GPA as the primary focus, replacing that with a holistic approach that would leave room for considering a student's prior educational experience and other personal circumstances.

The Inside Higher Ed article notes that the University of California, San Diego, eliminated a GPA requirement. They replaced that requirement with a lottery system in 2017.

The University of Michigan takes the holistic approach. According to their website, the admissions office will consider “a myriad of talents and experiences … such as dedication to service, an ability and desire to work collaboratively on teams, and consideration of the impact of computing in the context of the broader world."

higher ed