College financial performance is not the same for everyone. Students who major in certain fields, especially engineering, computer science, finance, economics, and nursing, greatly increase their chances of recouping the cost of their education. The economic returns of other majors are not as strong, and many students who choose low-paying majors are financially worse off for having attended college.
Usually, we think of a student’s choice of major as just a choice. But a new study by economists Zachary Bleemer and Aashish Mehta shows that many students who want to pursue studies like engineering or finance cannot. Colleges actively limit enrollment in lucrative fields of study.
Colleges impose restrictions on popular majors
It is increasingly common for large public universities to impose minimum GPA requirements in introductory courses as a prerequisite for declaring a high-income major. For example, at the University of California, Los Angeles, students wishing to declare a major in computer science must obtain a minimum average of 3.5 (A-) in the introductory courses and also submit a successful application to the department of computer science. ‘computer science. Aspiring mechanical engineers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign need a minimum GPA of 3.75(A).
Bleemer and Mehta catalog such restrictions on reporting lucrative majors at America’s top 25 public universities. Among the five highest-paying majors (computer science, economics, finance, mechanical engineering, and nursing), three-quarters of academic departments at the top 25 public universities have a major reporting restriction. Usually this restriction takes the form of a minimum GPA requirement, but sometimes departments require an application.
Restrictions on the reporting of high-income majors have not always existed. On the contrary, these controls have been implemented in different universities at different times over the past three decades, which provides researchers with a natural experience. By comparing data points before and after the restrictions were imposed, Bleemer and Mehta can identify the impact on major reporting and academic achievement.
The authors find that, among students who intend to report a particular high-income major, the restrictions reduce the proportion of students who actually graduate in that major by 15 percentage points. The effect is particularly pronounced among racial and ethnic minorities, and the authors argue that major restrictions help explain why black and Hispanic students generally achieve lower returns in college than their peers.
Are major restrictions justified?
To be fair, we shouldn’t dismiss the main restrictions out of hand. Some university departments may have good reason to discourage students from declaring high-earning majors. Engineering and economics are tough fields to master, after all. Restrictions may prevent some students from pursuing studies in areas where they will not succeed. In addition, the university has an interest in ensuring that it only graduates students who are competent in their field. Legions of nurses who don’t know the basics of medicine just won’t do.
But other results challenge this argument. When a major restriction is imposed, the authors find no evidence that it significantly improves students’ academic performance. In other words, the restrictions do not push students into fields of study for which they are better suited. A “B” student expelled from economics simply becomes a “B” student in sociology. The sad truth is that these marginal students have limited preparation for college-level work overall. If society insists they pursue the four-year college route, they might as well aim for a high-paying major.
Also, employers tend not to care about GPA as much as they do about internships and other work experiences. While grades are a good measure of academic aptitude, the workforce requires a slightly different set of talents – and “B” students can often excel in demanding jobs. If employers truly believe that a GPA of 3.0 or better is needed to do the job, they can simply ask students for transcripts to prove their academic mettle. Colleges shouldn’t deny students a chance at high-paying jobs just because of a disappointing grade in a freshman course.
So why do university departments restrict lucrative majors? Bleemer and Mehta postulate that prestige might be a reason. Many departments like to brag about the share of their graduates who go on to top doctoral programs or other impressive milestones. Restrictions on reporting the major increase the academic caliber of the average student in that major, but only because below-average students are expelled. More prosaic concerns such as capacity constraints in advanced classes may also play a role.
Create incentives for better education
The primary responsibility of colleges and universities is to educate students with the skills they need for the most in-demand jobs in the economy. This is why they receive hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies to operate. Today, the economy needs engineers, computer scientists, nurses and economists. Unnecessary restrictions on who can receive training in these areas undermine the most important mission of higher education.
The answer is not to ban GPA restrictions. Instead, policymakers should change the incentives facing colleges. Currently, the pursuit of prestige leads colleges to push students into lower paying fields of study. The appropriate remedy is to ensure that expanding access to high-earning majors is financially worthwhile.
One policy option is risk sharing: colleges would have to pay a penalty if their students don’t repay their federal loans. Since loan repayment is highly correlated with income, this creates a direct incentive for colleges to increase enrollment in high-income fields. An engineer or nurse will usually earn enough to repay her loans. The same cannot always be said of a theater student. If colleges are held accountable for poor results, they will nudge students into areas where they can succeed and help those who fall behind reach their full potential.
Policymakers should also level the playing field between traditional four-year colleges and alternative options. Promising college alternatives such as vocational academies and apprenticeships offer excellent training in lucrative fields like advanced manufacturing and computer programming. These alternatives may also be more aligned with the learning styles of students who cannot manage above a “B” average at a traditional university. If existing public universities are unable or unwilling to educate students in the most needed skill sets, perhaps we should give other providers the opportunity.
Contrary to popular belief, college isn’t always worth it. But it can be if students choose the right programs and if their schools give them the chance to succeed.