Significant Socio-Economic and Racial Stratification Caused by Public University Policies, Study Shows

December 8, 2021

Center for Studies in Higher Education
University of California, Berkeley

Significant Socio-Economic and Racial Stratification Caused by Public University Policies, Study Shows

In a new CSHE research paper College Major Restrictions and Student Stratification, CSHE Research Associate Zachary Bleemer and Aashish Mehta show that underrepresented minority (URM) college students have been steadily earning degrees in relatively less-lucrative fields of study since the mid-1990s. Their paper reveals that this widening gap is principally explained by rising stratification at public research universities, many of which increasingly enforce GPA restriction policies that prohibit students with poor introductory grades from declaring popular majors.

Bleemer and Mehta investigate these GPA restrictions – like Berkeley’s requirement that all economics majors earn a 3.0 GPA in their introductory economics courses – by constructing a novel 50-year dataset covering four public research universities’ student transcripts and employing a staggered difference-in-difference design around the implementation of 29 restrictions.

The authors find that "restricted majors’ average URM enrollment share falls by 20 percent, which matches observational patterns and can be explained by URM students’ poorer average pre-college academic preparation. Using first-term course enrollments to identify students who intend to earn restricted majors, we find that major restrictions disproportionately lead URM students from their intended major toward less-lucrative fields, driving within-institution ethnic stratification and likely exacerbating labor market disparities."

"While over a third of the rise in ethnic stratification across college majors can be explained by rising URM enrollment at universities where most students earn relatively lower-premium majors – which tend to be less-selective institutions – two-thirds of the rise can be explained by within-institutions dynamics over time, driven in particular by a sharp rise in ethnic stratification at public research universities,” the authors report.

While public research universities enroll 33 percent of four-year undergraduates, Bleemer and Mehta observe, they account for almost half of both current within-institution stratification and of universities’ recent trend toward greater stratification.

The top 26 public research universities in the U.S. – which enroll about 750,000 undergraduates, or about 7 percent of all university students – appear to be particular culprits. "Three-quarters of [those] universities’ most lucrative majors impose either high school or university course GPA restrictions, including every nursing major and nearly all mechanical engineering and finance majors. In contrast, fewer than ten percent of the same majors at top-ranked private universities have formal restrictions, though many limit access to high-premium majors with low grades and other discouragement mechanisms."

Bleemer and Mehta explain that, “universities’ with increasingly popular major restriction policies appear to have played an important role in stratifying their lucrative majors by ethnicity: implementing a new major restriction policy tends to decrease the restricted department’s URM enrollment by a quarter and disproportionately push URM students who intended the major into less-lucrative fields instead. In the same way that test-based meritocratic admissions policies inefficiently limit selective universities’ access to applicants with poorer academic qualifications, the stratification generated by major restriction policies exacerbates equity gaps between high- and low-SES families, with negative implications for efficiency, economic mobility, and the ethnicity wage gap.”

Contact Information: Zachary Bleemer
                                       Aashish Mehta

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Info on Authors: Zachary Bleemer is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Opportunity Insights at Harvard University and a Research Associate at UC Berkeley's Center for Studies in Higher Education. He will be appointed Assistant Professor of Economics at the Yale School of Management in 2022. Aashish Mehta is Assistant Professor of Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara