Why Aren’t Black Students Picking Majors That Lead to High-Paying Jobs?
Ask a group of high school seniors what they’re sick of being asked about college, and they’ll likely share some variation of the question “What are you going to major in?” Adults usually follow up the query one of two ways: They tell students to study a subject that leads to a high-paying job—after all, student loans don’t pay themselves—or they say money isn’t everything and that students should major in fields that appeal to their passions. Hello, English and psychology.
But according to a new report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, black students are more likely to choose majors that don’t lead to lucrative careers—and it may not always be a matter of personal choice.
The center studied data on 137 majors and found a significant underrepresentation of black students in fields of study that put people on the path to high-paying, in-demand jobs. “The low-paying majors that African Americans are concentrated in are of high social value but low economic value,” Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown center and coauthor of the report, said in a statement.
Students who major in pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences and administration tend to have median earnings of $84,000, but only 6 percent of black students choose those fields. Although 1 million STEM jobs are needed over the next decade, the report revealed that black students are underrepresented in STEM majors overall, which hurts their economic prospects throughout their lifetimes.
Not choosing a STEM major can have a significant economic impact on a person’s life. “African Americans who earned a Bachelor’s degree in a STEM related major, such as architecture or engineering, can earn as much as 50 percent more than African Americans who earned a Bachelor’s degree in art or psychology and social work,” wrote the report’s authors.
Instead, black students are more likely to major in “intellectual and caring” fields. They gravitate toward early childhood education and social work, “where low incomes do not reflect their years of higher education,” said the report.
The authors wrote that part of the problem is that black students are “concentrated in open-access four-year institutions where students have limited choices of majors offered.” In other words, it’s tough for a black student attending a less-selective school—which happens even when they have the grades to get into Harvard—to major in a field such as chemical engineering if it’s not an option on campus.
It also doesn’t help that racial discrimination may deter students from pursuing some majors, STEM in particular. Although 20 percent of black computer science majors attend historically black colleges and universities, Silicon Valley’s recruitment efforts on those campuses are often lackluster. Black STEM graduates also face significant discrimination on the job, which may discourage some from pursuing those careers.
Meanwhile, black students may also be inclined to give back to their communities by pursuing traditional fields. “If you’re an African American who majors in math, you’re more likely to become a schoolteacher. If you’re a white male who majors in math, you’re more likely to go on to grad school in business or to seek out higher education opportunities,” Carnevale explained to The Wall Street Journal. This doesn't mean black students should stop being teachers, said Carnevale. Instead, colleges need to expand their career counseling to boost awareness of other majors and what they earn.