When college students arrive on campus for the first time, their majors sort them by more than what they want to study. Their field of study also divides them largely along race and gender lines.
But the higher education system doesn’t intervene to fix the issue, leaving students to graduate in the same segregated groups.
This is according to an August report from the Center on Poverty and Inequality, a research group at Georgetown Law focused on expanding economic inclusion in the U.S. The report found that higher education actually perpetuated segregation by fields of study and the resulting inequality, an outcome antithetical to how colleges see and promote themselves.
"Postsecondary educational systems continue to amplify inequities in our society through segregation by race and gender within higher education — which contributes to segregation later in the workforce — harming individuals, communities, and our economy," the report said.
How colleges fuel occupational segregation
Despite numerous diversity and inclusion efforts, students of color and women remain underrepresented in fields that traditionally lead to jobs with high earning power and status.
This situation starts at college registration. Women are less likely to enroll in computer science or engineering programs, while men are less likely to study education or healthcare. Transferring into a dramatically different degree program later on is unlikely, according to the report's breakdown of recent graduates by gender.
In 2020, men graduated with bachelor's degrees in computer science and engineering at a rate more than quadruple that of women. The same year, 19% of women earned bachelor's degrees in healthcare fields, compared to only 5% of men.
The divide is not simply a matter of personal preference.
"Decisions about majors or fields of study are not just individual decisions. Students’ life experiences; social networks; K-12 education; postsecondary faculty, advisors, and systems; and wider societal factors — including sexism and racism — shape these decisions," the report said.
For example, Black women are structurally excluded from fields of study like business, engineering and computer sciences. And overall, students of color have lower degree attainment rates than White students, the report said.
What colleges can do about it
Colleges should take a number of actions to address the disparities, according to the report.
Campuswide, colleges need to address financial requirements and other barriers erected around certain majors, according to the report. For instance, while science and engineering degrees can lead to some of the highest-paying jobs, many courses required to graduate carry lab and material fees on top of tuition. The report recommends college leaders keep the cost of all fields of study equal.
Students with dependents, 80% of whom are women, and students of color are more likely to start their studies at a two-year institution, according to the report. Researchers found that beginning at a community college affects a student’s choice of field, with more transfer students studying education and fewer studying engineering. And white graduates who started at community colleges are twice as likely as their Black peers to study natural sciences and math.
Another barrier for community college students is time. Due to limited options and poor communication on transferability of credits, transfer students with associate degrees often have to retake classes at their new institution, which delays their graduation.
"Receiving institutions should implement orientation programs that acclimate transfer students to their new departments specifically as well as to the school community. Community colleges also should provide strong advisory programs with personalized support for transfer students to ensure that they have a clear path to completing field of study requirements," the report said.
By creating a better transfer system, colleges could ensure these students know what studies are available to them and not waste resources on credits that won't apply, the report said. Colleges should also address challenges for students who are juggling responsibilities outside of the classroom, including evaluating the course loads for various degree programs.
Within degree programs, schools should work to make their majors welcoming to all students regardless of background, according to the report.
"Structurally excluded students often experience a 'chilly climate' in more segregated fields of study, where curriculum and course structure, pedagogy, policies, culture, faculty, other students, and advising can all contribute to an unwelcoming, discouraging, and even hostile environment," the report said. "Chilly climates reproduce racial hierarchy, which can limit access and derail success for students of color."
Offering mentorship programs, equity-focused academic advising and curriculum, and policies designed with inclusion and student success in mind can provide underrepresented students with a vital support structure. Degree programs should also ensure peer-to-peer support by organizing community-building efforts and affinity networks for those students, the report said.
On the staffing side, faculty and administrators should represent the desired diversity of the student body in every field of study, according to the report. Students will see people they identify with succeeding, which in turn will make it easier to diversify the faculty pool in the future.
Traditionally, faculty positions have largely skewed toward White candidates who grew up in highly educated households.
"Improving outcomes for structurally excluded students in segregated fields of study is an important upstream measure in addressing faculty pipeline issues, as it ensures more of these students have the opportunity to attend graduate school and become faculty," the report said.