Black Majors Matter

More students of color may be getting degrees, but we need to find ways to open all degree options to all students, argues Alanna Gillis.

June 23, 2021
 
 
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When I was a graduate student, I did a research project on how undergraduate students of color choose majors. Or, I should say, had majors chosen for them.

One of the students I interviewed, a working-class Black woman, began as a biomedical engineering major, but the students in her courses and the culture of the department did not feel right to her. Instead of being helpful to each other, classmates were fiercely competitive.

Her experience is consistent with those of other students of color, reporting experiences similar to the “chilly climate” previously found for women in STEM fields.

Business tracks are similar. A Black man, also working class, started out in business, but he soon felt the atmosphere was unhealthy -- literally. He said college was hard enough without being uncomfortable with peers and dropped business weeks into his first semester.

Both of these students are likely to advise other students of color not to enter these fields, and the cycle repeats.

While majors are not deterministic of later life careers or incomes, they are certainly impactful. Many higher-paid careers require STEM training, and applications to professional graduate programs, such as medical school, require rigorous undergraduate pathways -- those same pathways from which students of color are often pushed out.

I interviewed 50 students from various socioeconomic backgrounds and racial groups (white, Black, Hispanic and Asian) three times during their first year of college. During their third interview, I asked them to advise hypothetical friends how to choose a major, and I gave the make-believe friends names that would signal a certain ethnicity.

My interviewees almost always steered them away from white male-dominated majors. And if the hypothetical student was getting low grades, they often pinned poor performance on bad student habits or poor time management instead of asking what might be causing the low grades -- but only if the hypothetical friend was Black or Hispanic, not white or Asian.

I also found that faculty and staff mentors had similar tendencies in the real advice they gave to students. For instance, one working-class Hispanic man had an adviser assume he was being “lazy” for taking a course over the summer at a community college. In reality, he was doing so due to financial necessity.

The students I spoke with who are facing such challenges were not always from low-income backgrounds. An upper-middle-class Black woman felt the same isolation in her classes. But, fortunately, she found other students like her who gave her good advice, and she persevered.

My research suggests that college students in general, not just white students, internalize racial stereotypes and unknowingly reproduce them in conversations. Students receive racialized advice from peers, unaware of its biases, and they use that to help to make decisions about majors. All of this leads to more segregated fields of study and the reproduction of inequality.

Previous studies show that personal preferences largely drive choice of majors, but I found that social networks -- family, friends and mentors -- tend to be segregated by race. When students feel uncomfortable in a major, they get pulled back into majors that members of their social networks chose. I also found that students of color are receiving biased advice on majors from all sides

In this Black Lives Matter era, many of us are thinking a lot about what we can do to help eradicate racism. In higher education, more students of color may be getting degrees, but we need to find ways to open all degree options to all students.

University leaders must first desegregate campuses today. Students turn to their friends for advice about majors. Creating meaningful ways for students to form diverse friendship networks will enable students to have more diverse support when they face barriers in their courses.

That being said, students of color also need to be connected to mentors of similar backgrounds in their first semester. They need mentors who understand their experiences in the chilly climate and the biased advice they will receive. If the programs wait until students have declared the major to form connections, the programs have already lost them.

Additionally, faculty must work to cultivate classrooms that are inclusive for all students. Advisers must combat their own biases to ensure that they are working to help students overcome racial inequality -- not perpetuating it themselves with their advice.

Choosing a major has a permanent impact on every student’s life. We need to open every academic path to every student.

Bio

Alanna Gillis, assistant professor of sociology at St. Lawrence University, studies race, class and gender inequality in higher education.

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