Georgetown Law report: How can colleges put more underrepresented students on the path to lucrative careers?

In general, a college education can lead to greater opportunities for economic and social mobility. But a new report from Georgetown Law’s Center for Poverty and Inequality shows how racial and gender segregation across fields of study limits that mobility and contributes to a segregated workforce.

Women and students of color have been structurally excluded from certain college majors—such as computer science, engineering, and business—that lead to high-paying jobs, according to the report’s authors. Looking at first-time college students, they found that women were nearly four times more likely than men to enroll in health care-related bachelor’s degree programs, while men were more than four times more likely than women to enroll in computer science or engineering programs. Segregation across fields of study typically starts at the time of enrollment, and transferring to an entirely different field of study with higher earning potential is unlikely, Higher Ed Dive reports.

This field-of-study segregation not only reflects students’ personal preferences but also how racism, sexism, discrimination and unaffordability deter underrepresented students from thriving in high-paying fields. Black students in particular are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields of study and overrepresented in health care. Field-of-study segregation between women of color and white men has also been increasing over the past three decades.

Related: How can STEM programs attract, graduate more Black students? >

As a result, college students graduate in segregated groups, reinforcing income, wealth, and labor market disparities among women and students of color, the report indicates. Students in fields of study dominated by men earn higher incomes, while students enrolled in programs dominated by women earn lower incomes, as female-dominated professions, such as teaching children or nursing, have lower wages and poorer work conditions. Furthermore, the average annual income of an occupation with a higher share of Black men is lower than the average annual income of an occupation with a lower share of Black men.

Disrupting field-of-study segregation

To address these disparities, the report urges postsecondary institutions to reduce barriers built around higher-paying fields so that structurally excluded students have access to all occupations. They call on colleges to:

  • Reduce cost and time hurdles that keep students from pursuing majors that lead to higher-paying jobs, especially for students with outside responsibilities
  • Address the “chilly climate” in some lucrative fields of study and foster a sense of belonging among structurally excluded students—in part by investing in mentorship programs and diversifying faculty across all fields of study 
  • Provide opportunities for structurally excluded students to gain relevant career experience and make essential career connections during college
  • Support students in timely degree attainment by offering financial support and investing  investing in peer-to-peer mentoring and equity-focused academic advising, curriculum, and policies

Related: Study: A culture of belonging can improve academic outcomes >

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