UC Berkeley study finds major restriction policies cause racial stratification

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The study findings indicate that allocating resources to URM students would allow them to be used more efficiently, and that current policies are widening the salary gap between URM and non-URM college graduates.

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The UC Berkeley Center for Studies in Higher Education, or CSHE, published a study Dec. 6 showing that major restriction policies cause racial inequity and resource inefficiency.

The study analyzed major restriction policies at the 25 top public universities in the United States, according to Zachary Bleemer, co-author of the study and research associate at CSHE. The study found that 75% of the five most lucrative majors were restricted, and none or less than 10% of major restrictions were imposed at private and for-profit universities.

“People are surprised that these major restrictions are so widespread,” Bleemer said. “It is only because it is so widespread that it can play such an important, national-level role in explaining the wage gap in college-educated workers.”

In this study, underrepresented minorities or “URM students” are defined as students self-identifying as Black, Chicanx, Latinx or Native American, while “non-URM students” refers to all other students, according to Bleemer.

The study shows URM students have tended to earn college majors with lower economic value relative to non-URM students in the last 20 years.

“This is what we refer to as racial stratification,” Bleemer said. “Black and Hispanic students are … earning a different set of majors than white and Asian students, and this set of majors … tends to be of lower economic value.”

The study followed students enrolled in selective public research universities with available data, including UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Santa Barbara and UC Santa Cruz.

CSHE director George Blumenthal noted the findings of this study delve into “the issue of equity in higher education.”

Bleemer said college major restriction policies seem to be the “primary culprit” explaining the growing ethnic stratification across college majors.

Bleemer added that major restriction policies seem to widen this “human capacity obtainment gap” between URM and non-URM college-educated workers, and in part explain why the gap has remained despite many anti-discriminatory policies that people expected to narrow the wage gap.

“(Major restriction policies) function as a countervailing force,” Bleemer said. “Widening the wage between URM and non-URM college-educated workers.”

Blumenthal noted major restrictions often exist because of enrollment surges.

When more students want to be in a certain major, the department may not be able to handle the subsequent enrollment surge, according to Blumenthal. He added it is “perfectly legitimate” to hire temporary instructors or put major restrictions in place when the enrollment surge is too big.

However, such restrictions should only be temporary, Blumenthal stated, adding that the department should hire faculty if the surge continues.

“If the surge doesn’t continue, which is sometimes the case, then the department should be able to release that limitation on enrollment,” Blumenthal said. “So it doesn’t continue to eliminate the underrepresented population.”

Bleemer points out that major restriction policies not only have equity implications but also important efficiency ramifications.

For example, major restriction policies explicitly limit access to STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math degrees, which the U.S. government is trying to promote. According to Bleemer, this can have “economic and national security ramifications.”

While many restriction policies require students to obtain a certain GPA to declare a major, evidence suggests that allocating resources to students who are less well-prepared for the field would be more valuable to those students, Bleemer noted. He added these students receive relatively few academic opportunities and would be able to take advantage of provided opportunities.

This study is very closely related to a previous study published by CSHE last year, which found that economics majors at UC Santa Cruz who barely met the GPA threshold earned $22,000 more than they would have with their second-choice majors in their early career.

Researchers are interested in doing more similar studies in the future, primarily focusing on engineering and computer science majors, according to Bleemer.

Contact Winnie Lau at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @winniewy_lau.

A previous version of this article incorrectly quoted Bleemer as saying “economic initial security ramifications.” In fact, Bleemer said “economic and national security ramifications”.