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A Black male student carries a backpack as he exits a building.

Underrepresented minority students are less likely than their peers to graduate from high-earning majors. Change-of-major policies may be to blame.

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Institutional policies relating to change of major may be pushing students from underrepresented minority backgrounds to graduate with lower-earning degrees—and ones they might not have preferred.

Research explored in a recent Brookings policy brief found Black, Hispanic, American Indian and Alaska Native students were less likely than their peers to be enrolled in high-earning majors, particularly STEM majors, which could be tied to restrictive change-of-major policies or exclusive applications for some majors.

What’s the sitch: In the last 25 years, there has been a racial and ethnic stratification across majors within large public institutions, researchers found.

Some of this may be due to personal interests—a recent College Pulse survey found students value affinity for a major over future earnings, for example—yet researchers found no change in URM preferences for high-premium majors compared to their peers.

Prior research shows STEM majors are more likely to change their major and those who change their major are more likely to graduate than those who don’t.

However, many colleges and universities adopt major restriction policies for students to maintain enrollment balances within popular majors. Restrictions can include requiring an application to the department, grade point average requirements within introductory courses or an overall GPA threshold.

The economics program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, for example, required students to earn a 2.8 GPA between two specific introductory economics classes, which pushed some students into other social science majors.

Students who were excluded from the program earned less in early-career jobs in lower-paying industries, compared to their peers who met the 2.8 requirement.

Among those at 106 public Research-1 institutions, 55 percent of graduates had to overcome a major restriction. Around a third of students earned minimum GPA requirements or applied to the major. The other 20 percent met an overall GPA threshold.

Of graduates with high wages (business, computer science, economics, engineering and nursing), 75 percent met major restrictions to earn their degree.

Only cons: Major restrictions don’t benefit students who are excluded, according to the report. Researchers found a first-year’s academic performance was more reflective of their overall academic preparation than their aptitude for a specific program. Low-GPA students were just as likely to graduate from a restrictive major as their peers, despite poor grades.

Making programs restrictive also does not benefit employers or meaningfully enhance earnings of program graduates. Major restrictions do not change the labor market value of degrees, presenting no direct benefit to graduates who meet requirements. Rather, the report found when low-GPA students are allowed into restrictive majors, they have higher wage benefits compared to their peers.

The solutions: A function of major restrictions—stabilizing enrollment among majors—can be met with different policies or by changing requirements.

“Our research suggests that dismantling or loosening major restrictions would provide substantial benefits to disadvantaged students and generate a higher return to taxpayer investments in higher education, but the enrollment consequences in impacted departments would need to be managed,” the report says.

Four ideas:

  1. Increase public funding. Institutions can hire more professors to meet demands for high-return majors.
  2. Distinctive hiring for faculty. R-1 institutions should distinguish faculty roles for teaching or research professors to match lower- and upper-division course needs. This would allow in-demand departments to expand offerings among lower-level classes and teaching positions.
  3. Remove strict GPA cutoffs. Some institutions may need to maintain their GPA major restriction policies, in which case they should avoid strict GPA cutoffs and instead promote applications or holistic evaluations of students looking to change their major.
  4. Promote transparency. Many colleges do not disclose restrictions for specific majors, leaving students unaware of the consequences of a low GPA. Universities should publicize change-of-major requirements across all majors.
  5. Practice intentional advising. If a student’s GPA drops in the first semester, colleges and universities should provide advising and academic support so they can get back on track for their preferred major.

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