Report: African-American Students Students Choosing Low-Earning Majors

Posted By Eliana Osborn on February 17, 2016 at 2:36 pm
Report: African-American Students Students Choosing Low-Earning Majors

There’s a wealth gap between white and black households.  There’s an earnings gap as well, even when two employees have the same experience and education.  Unemployment for black Americans is double the rate for whites at all levels.  What all of these disparities have in common? They come after students leave college and head out into the work force.

New research from Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce sheds light on one trend that might be contributing to career inequities: choice of major.  African Americans: College Majors and Earnings analyzes the data on which majors African American students choose, and in what numbers. The overwhelming trend? African-American students are more often choosing majors that lead to lower-earning jobs.

  • STEM: Science, technology, engineering and math. These are the fields that hold the majority of future jobs (and the highest salaries), according to businesses and the government alike.  However, only 7% of students in STEM majors are black. According to the study, “African Americans only account for 8 percent of general engineering majors, 7 percent of mathematics majors, and 5 percent of computer majors.”  The Department of Education has awarded grant funds to grow STEM programs at schools with significant minority enrollment, recognizing these imbalances.
  • Human services: On the other end of the spectrum, 20% of black college students major in human services and community organization. This is the second lowest paying field, with median earnings around $39,000.  Jobs using a degree in human services include things like caseworkers, substance abuse counselors or social work.  It is a growing sector of the economy with more jobs projected to be added, but nearly all will be at the low end of professional pay.
  • Highs and lows: Just 6% of African American students major in pharmacy and related fields, though they lead to the highest median earnings at the bachelor’s degree level. More than twice as many students choose the lowest paying sector of jobs with a four year degree — psychology and social work.

Why is there so much concern over what majors students choose?  “The low-paying majors that African Americans are concentrated in are of high social value but low economic value,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown Center and co-author of the report in a press release. “Meaningful career planning before college can provide transparency about major choice and potentially prevent onerous debt and underemployment down the road.”

Advisement during the first year of college may be one way to help all students more carefully choose their course of study.  Thinking about job prospects only in time for graduation is too late.  Most students, regardless of race, will need to balance their career interests with honest conversations about debt and earning potential.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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