Colleges have wrestled with their role in perpetuating racial inequity in American society. That conversation often centers around admissions and access, whether colleges — especially highly selective universities — are accepting enough students of color. But a new paper suggests that even after underrepresented minority students are enrolled, they face a hurdle that limits their future earnings.
At four-year public research institutions, that roadblock is GPA restrictions for majors in high-income fields. Those restrictions, the new study says, have disproportionately pushed Black, Hispanic, and Native American students toward fields that pay less.
The gap in the economic value of college majors earned by underrepresented minority graduates compared with their white and Asian counterparts has increased more than threefold since the mid-1990s, according to the report, “College Major Restrictions and Student Stratification.”
The report found that one culprit of that gap is entry requirements. At many of the institutions included in the paper, students who wanted to major in competitive fields like computer science, engineering, finance, and nursing, had to achieve a 2.3 GPA or better in their introductory courses.
This resulted in within-institution stratification, as students who had fewer opportunities before getting to college — many of them people of color — fell short of the GPA requirement. As a consequence, Black, Hispanic, and Native American students are disproportionately earning degrees in fields that are less lucrative than those available to their white counterparts, according to the report. And at a time when tech companies and medical institutions are trying to diversify their fields, the report says, these policies that restrict majors could be hampering that goal.
The report was written by Zachary Bleemer, a postdoctoral fellow at Opportunity Insights, a research organization at Harvard University, and Aashish Mehta, an associate professor of global and international studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Bleemer and Mehta focused on four campuses of the University of California system and found that over the past 50 years, each campus has imposed about 12 restricted majors. And, according to Bleemer, restrictions on majors are seldom removed.
Major-restriction policies typically take one of three forms: an average-grade requirement in introductory courses, an internal application once students have been admitted to the school, or an external application submitted prior to student enrollment.
The researchers also looked at five of the highest-earning majors at 25 top public universities as ranked by U.S. News & World Report. Three-quarters of the majors imposed a GPA restriction in 2019, including every nursing major and nearly all mechanical-engineering and finance majors, according to the report. “Something immediately just seemed off to me about universities’ setting these really high standards before allowing students into usually their most lucrative majors,” Bleemer said in an interview with The Chronicle.
Well-prepared students from high schools that provided Advanced Placement courses skated through these requirements, Bleemer said, compared with students whose high schools didn’t offer the same level of preparation. Students who attended the latter schools are predominantly Black or Hispanic and come from underserved communities.
“Students who came in with less prior academic opportunity, whose high schools didn’t teach AP computer science or who didn’t have outside opportunities to learn in these fields, on average, got much lower grades in these introductory courses,” Bleemer said.
The highest major restriction the researchers observed was in the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Students needed to earn a 3.75 GPA in their introductory computer science math and chemistry courses in order to pursue a major in the Grainger College of Engineering.
“These are essentially A-students who aren’t allowed to earn computer-science degrees,” said Bleemer, who will be an assistant professor of economics at Yale next year.
Illinois administrators say it’s not that simple.
This was the university’s pre-engineering program, created in 2019 as a result of space constraints in the mechanical-engineering and computer-science majors, said Andy Borst, director of undergraduate admissions at Illinois. The idea was that, even though those majors were at capacity, administrators wanted to still admit students who “performed at a certain level.”
He added that the program is currently being phased out and that more students will be admitted directly into the engineering college. Borst says while there is no longer a GPA requirement to be in engineering at Illinois, “students are still expected to demonstrate success in foundational courses in order to be competitive for admission” once they’re on campus.
Bleemer spoke with other university administrators about why they implemented the restrictions. Administrators defended them as a way to curb an influx of students all interested in the same field.
One of the hot fields is computer science. The number of undergraduate enrollments in comp sci rose by 74 percent between 2009 and 2015, according to the National Academy of Sciences. The group cautions institutions against imposing strict limits on enrollment or accepting students even though it may not have the capacity to keep them in the major, warning that doing so could “disproportionally discourage participation among underrepresented groups and have undesired long-term impacts.”
But major requirements in many fields have persisted. For colleges, a department full of students with higher GPAs adds “an air of prestige,” Bleemer says.
The researchers also found that once the restrictions are in place, they can last for decades, far longer than the surge of students they were imposed to contain.
Students pursuing a computer-science degree at UC-Berkeley have to take three introductory comp-sci classes starting their freshman year. And to qualify for the major, students need to earn a 3.3 GPA, or a B-plus average, in those prerequisite courses, Michelle Phillips, director of communications in the College of Letters & Science, wrote in an email to The Chronicle. According to the report by Bleemer and Mehta, in the fall of 2019, Berkeley had a minimum 3.0 GPA requirement in department-specified courses that students needed to declare mechanical engineering as their major.
Currently, for the College of Engineering, there is no GPA floor for undergraduate admissions into the electrical engineering and computer-sciences department, according to Sarah Yang, assistant dean of marketing and communication in the engineering college. In an email to The Chronicle, she said evaluation of freshman applicants is managed by the central campus admissions office. The University of California system president’s office does impose a 3.0 GPA requirement for all freshman applicants.
Bleemer and Mehta’s study was released as a research paper by UC-Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education.