Report offers closer look at representation within fields of study

A recent report from The Urban Institute looks at racial and ethnic representation across college majors, emphasizing that merely increasing diversity on campus is not enough to prevent persistent under- or over-representation in certain fields of study. 

Looking at data from 1,489 non-tribal, non-historically Black four-year institutions, researchers found that students of color are frequently concentrated within certain majors alongside students of the same race. At colleges and universities where Black and HIspanic students are most segregated, they end up less likely to graduate with degrees that lead to high-paying careers.  

Long-term income implications 

The study found that, between 2005 and 2015, Asian students were the most likely among racial and ethnic groups to be overrepresented in certain fields of study, including STEM majors, relative to their enrollment. White students, meanwhile, were spread out across different fields. Black and Latinx students tended to be underrepresented in STEM fields, the study notes. Black students were more likely to be overrepresented in public administration and social services majors. 

“In general, it seems that when you have a segregated college, your students of color are enrolling in majors that, at the end of the day, are not getting [remunerated] very well in the labor market, at least compared to other majors,” Dr. Tomás Monarrez, a co-author of the report, told Diverse Issues of Higher Education. “If we’re worried about the growing racial wealth gap, if we’re worried about the really stagnant, large racial income gap, then we should definitely be worried about the segregation inside colleges.”

Making STEM more attractive, welcoming

The report does not go into detail about the cause of segregation, but Dr. Ebony O. McGee, associate professor of education, diversity, and STEM at Vanderbilt University, told Diverse Issues that students of color are more likely to have life experiences that draw them toward careers that allow them to become agents for diversity and social change. 

“Black students in particular often have racialized experiences in their educational environments, and generally in life, and many of them want to minimize or eradicate those experiences for future generations,” McGee said. “They want to be in fields where they can witness and participate in and be change agents in making society a more equitable place.” 

To attract underrepresented students to STEM, McGee calls on colleges and universities to elevate faculty of color who approach those fields with a social justice lens. The Urban Institute similarly recommends recruiting more faculty of color overall.   

The climate within STEM-related classrooms also is a critical factor, experts say. Students of color can sometimes feel unwelcome when pursuing a STEM career—and that sense of belonging is crucial to thriving, Kerstin M. Perez, an assistant professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, writes in Inside Higher Ed. Perez calls on educators to use this moment of pedagogical disruption during COVID-19 to recast their classes in a way that prioritizes inclusive excellence and fosters belonging for underrepresented students. 

Meanwhile, seeking to improve representation within biomedical fields, the National Institutes of Health has announced it is offering funding to help institutions recruit diverse scholars and provide them with mentorship and networking opportunities. “The future of our enterprise rests on engaging highly talented researchers from all groups and preparing them to be successful,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins. “Diversity is the foundation that fuels creativity and innovation.”

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