Written by Serie McDougal
Georgetown University’s Center of Education and the Workforce recently produced a report on African American college students’ choices for majors and how those choices affect their earnings. Based on the findings, African Americans students’ choices of majors tend to be concentrated in service oriented academic disciplines. The top ten college majors by percentage of African American degree holders are: 1) Health and Medical Administration Services, 2) Human Services and Community Organization, 3) Social Work, 4) Public Administration, 5) Criminal Justice and Fire Protection, 6) Sociology, 7) Computer and Information Systems, 8) Human Resources and Personnel Management, 9) Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, and 10) Pre-Law and Legal Studies (Carnevale, Fasules, Porter & Landis-Santos, 2016). African American students’ interest in service oriented occupations also means that they are concentrated among the lowest earning jobs because of the lack of value that the U.S. places on service-oriented work. African American students are underrepresented among fast growing and high earning disciplines such as business and engineering majors and other STEM fields (Carnevale, Fasules, Porter & Landis-Santos, 2016). Sometimes called the “caring professions,” human services and community organization, health and medical administration services, and social work, are among the fields that African Americans are most highly represented, yet they rank among the lowest incomes.
As informative as the report is, its conclusion seems to be lacking in context as it suggests that African American students must simply make better choices, major in growing, high earning STEM fields. The implication being that if they majored in fields related to higher earnings, they would experience more financial success and less stress. What about how African American underrepresentation in STEM fields develops. African American youth in K-12 school, often attend under-resourced schools that: 1) are less likely to offer high-level math and science classes, 2) are less likely to offer rigorous high quality math and science courses when they are offered, and 3) more likely to have math and science teachers teaching outside of their fields (Anderson, 2006). The idea that they enter college with a disadvantage regarding their relative levels of preparation for such majors is not lost upon them. Expecting Black students to simply choose STEM fields without addressing these structural inequalities in their pre-secondary schooling experiences is disingenuous at best.
Debunking internalized racism in the form of beliefs that Black people are less capable in scientific fields has its place, as does exposing Black youth to curriculum that fills them with knowledge of their people’s rich scientific heritage. Exposing them to professional mentors in STEM professions as early as middle and high school would offer them concrete examples of the possible in addition to invaluable mentorship. But, one thing is for certain, simply admonishing Black students to make better choices is the symbolic racist counterpart of the institutionally racist structures that disadvantage them before they reach college.
Anderson, E. (2006). Increasing the success of minority students in science and technology.Washington, D.C.: American Council on Education.
Carnevale, A. P., Fasules, M. L., Porter, A., & Landis-Santos, J. (2016). African Americans: College majors and earnings. Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. Retrieved December 27, 2016, from
National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) (2016). Indicator 24: STEM Degrees. Retrieved December 26, 2016, from http://nces.ed.gov/programs/raceindicators/indicator_reg.asp