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posted: 9/20/2015 1:00 AM

Racial disparities in college major selection exacerbates earnings gap

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African-American and Hispanic students disproportionately earn more bachelors degrees in low-paying majors, putting them at higher risk for financial instability after graduation, according to a new study from Young Invincibles, an advocacy group.

The study identified the highest-paying and lowest-paying majors using data from the U.S. Education Department and Payscale. The highest-paying majors through mid-career were primarily in science, technology, engineering and math-related fields, while the lowest were in law enforcement, education and professional studies.

Researchers found African-Americans are over-represented in four of the six lowest-paying fields; the same is true for Hispanic students in three of the six majors at the bottom of the income ladder. Starting salaries in low-paid majors are approximately $35,000 a year and barely grow to $55,000 within 10 or 15 years into a career. By contrast, students with STEM degrees start out making at least $50,000 and can reasonably expect to make more than $75,000 by the middle of their careers.

There is no singular reason for the racial disparities within majors, but centuries of racial discrimination, uneven budgetary support for K-12 education and poor academic advising and student support contribute to the problem, said Tom Allison, deputy director of policy and research at Young Invincibles, and one of the authors of the study.

At the University of Maryland Baltimore County, chemistry professor William LaCourse has seen his share of students of color with a lot of potential lose interest in science fields when they struggle in a course.

"A student comes in from high school with good grades, takes a chemistry or a math course and gets a C. But on the other hand, he takes a sociology or English course and gets an A. Which one do they think they're better suited for?" said LaCourse, dean of the College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences at UMBC. "We can try to get to them before that C, bring them in over the summer, give them prep course, get them good advising."

To that end, LaCourse applied for and won an $18 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to increase diversity in biomedical research at UMBC. The program, which got under way this year, targets high-potential students who are at risk of not completing their STEM degrees by providing extra academic support.

Nicole Norfles, of the Council for Opportunity in Education, said that for many minority students, it's about exposure to these fields and the ability to academically succeed in them.

"Many of these students may be coming from high schools without Advanced Placement programs or quality math and science courses, environments that may not encourage them to pursue STEM degrees," Norfles said.

While the true worth of a college degree is greater than its economic value, securing a well-paid job has become critical in the age of five-figure student debt. Nearly 80 percent of African-Americans borrow to pay for college and take on debt loads that are 15 percent higher than the average student. That kind of financial burden could be difficult to overcome with a low salary.

"We're not trying to discourage anyone from pursuing their interests, but this should inform decision making when students are thinking about how much debt to take out," Allison said. "How much debt you take out should be driven by the return on investment in the workforce."

On the bright side, African-Americans are gaining ground in engineering, mathematics and science technologies majors. Still, they only obtain 5 percent of the degrees awarded in each of those lucrative fields. Hispanic students, meanwhile, are registering similar results, which experts say is a clear indication that policymakers and educators need to pay extra attention to both minority groups to close racial income gaps.

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