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Beyond the News

Black students end up in lower-paying majors

African-American students account for just 7 percent of the nation’s STEM majors
University Business, April 2016
  • Intrusive advising at Florida A&M helps students make up for shortcomings in in high school instruction and stay on track in STEM majors.
  • Historically black colleges and universities such as Alabama A&M produce nearly a quarter of the nation’s African-American STEM graduates.

As a new study shows one group of students falling farther behind in the struggle to land jobs with salaries that will allow them to pay off debts and achieve financial stability, some experts say it’s the country’s education system that needs to adjust.

Only a small percentage of African-American college students enroll in the highest-paying majors—specifically STEM, health and business, says a new report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. African-Americans more often earn degrees in social work, education and psychology, “where low incomes do not reflect their years of higher education,” the report says.

“The labor market does not recognize the enormous contributions these graduates make to help families and individuals,” says Nicole Smith, the center’s chief economist.

African-American students account for just 7 percent of the nation’s STEM majors. And only 5 percent earn degrees in architecture and engineering, the fields with the highest median earnings (about $66,000 a year) for African-Americans with bachelor’s degrees, the report says. Yearly salaries for psychology and social work are just over $42,000.

“This report is about African-Americans but we could possibly say the same thing about many other ethnic and racial groups,” Smith says.

A lack of desire to study STEM doesn’t appear to be the culprit, however. African-American students express interest in STEM at rates equal to their white classmates, says Kelly Mack, vice president for undergraduate STEM education at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

“These students don’t get the opportunity to decide which school district they go to—if they live in a neighborhood with a lower socio-economic status, chances are the quality of education is not equivalent to what others might receive.”

To bridge the preparedness gap, colleges and universities should expand summer bridge programs, mentoring, study groups and other academic support services, says Christopher Smith, director of scholarships, university relations, and research at the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering.

“The students are not getting introduced to the material at an early age,” he says. “That puts them at a disadvantage when applying for four-year degrees in STEM fields.”

Florida A&M University uses diagnostic testing to spot weaknesses in students’ preparation, followed by intrusive advising to help them catch up, stay on track and leave with less debt, says Provost Marcella David.

“The biggest factor leading to student debt is the trend to think of college as a six-year investment—instead of measuring four-year graduation rates, six years has become the industry standard, we believe, to the detriment of students,” she says. “A motivated, properly supported student can finish a bachelor’s degree in four years.”

While Florida A&M and other historically black colleges and universities represent a small fraction of U.S. higher ed institutions, these schools produce nearly a quarter of the nation’s African-American STEM graduates, says Chance Glenn, dean of the College of Engineering, Technology, and Physical Sciences at Alabama A&M University.

“Industries realize that, for the products they sell and services they put forward, they must reach a broader swath of people,” Glenn says. “They are more and more realizing it’s imperative to their business livelihood to embrace broader diversity within their companies—and they’re looking to HBCUs.”

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