Study: GPA thresholds for popular majors limiting upward mobility for low-income students and students of color

A study from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Yale University finds that GPA requirements for certain popular majors such as economics, engineering, and computer science have for decades excluded students who may have had less access to college preparation courses, Washington Monthly reports. The study’s authors—Aashish Mehta, a professor of global studies at UC Santa Barbara, and Zach Bleemer, an assistant professor of economics at Yale—point out that, absent the right supports, students whose high school experiences leave them underprepared for higher education, particularly first-generation and low-income students, tend to earn lower grades in the first year of college. Those poor introductory grades, in turn, prevent those students from declaring majors in lucrative, in-demand fields with GPA thresholds, prematurely limiting their academic and career options.

Related: How does students’ choice of major, school affect first-year earnings? Georgetown report offers first-time look. >

Unintended consequences of GPA thresholds

Bleemer and Mehta say they had long observed that a disproportionate amount of their students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds were being funneled out of popular majors, adding that their latest research indicates that this is a nationwide phenomenon. Across the country, underrepresented minority (URM) students were over twice as likely to exit sought-after majors due to GPA thresholds than non-URM students, especially at large public universities, which were more likely than private universities to place GPA thresholds on popular majors. 

As a result, URM students with poor college preparation have been more likely than their peers to earn degrees in less-lucrative fields, exacerbating existing racial and economic gaps.

Related: What will it take to close career achievement gaps? >

These are unintended outcomes of policies instituted to balance high demand for majors with limited faculty and resources, says Sarah Turner, a professor of economics at the University of Virginia. “When departments introduce these kinds of constraints or requirements, particularly in response to fiscal constraints, it is not with an intent of harming a particular group,” she explains. “It is simply, how do you come up with a strategy to deal with the demand?”

Alternatives to GPA thresholds?

A more inclusive strategy would be to rely on holistic evaluations, rather than just GPAs, experts suggest. According to Bleemer and Mehta’s data, fewer URM students are excluded from in-demand fields that consider faculty and peer recommendations. However, welcoming more students into popular majors still requires universities to hire more faculty and staff, potentially funneling money away from less in-demand fields. 

Savannah Gonzalez, a first-generation student at UC Santa Barbara who failed to qualify for a communications major due to a low grade in one of her courses, recommends that universities inform new students about available resources (tutors, faculty advisors, and remedial courses) before they reach a crisis point. Gonzalez tells Washington Monthly that she and other first-generation students might have had a better chance of thriving in college had faculty and academic support staff reached out to them and said, “Hey, you’re kind of at a disadvantage, but there are resources for you, and people who want to help you succeed.”

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