A Detailed Look At College Major Distributions By Race

We analyzed the distribution of college majors over time for different races in America.

Ryan Morrisby Ryan MorrisStudy - 6 months ago


As the economy continues to look depressing, and Baby Boomers continue not dying fast enough and blaming all of society’s ills on millennials – who, in all fairness, deserve at least some blame – incoming college students are looking increasingly at STEM fields.

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) majors have always been relatively popular ones, after Business and Education, but as the years have worn on these fields have become increasingly valued by businesses and corporations.

Culturally, too, these fields have tended to hold a lot of weight as those most likely to contribute to the economy, with governments becoming pushier and pushier when it comes to suggesting where incoming students should be focusing their interest.

So it’s no real wonder why young people are entering STEM fields. The more interesting question is, who are these young people exactly?

What We Learned From the Data

When we started looking at the differences between major distribution across races and ethnicities, the results weren’t all that astounding at first.

We recently did a similar article using gender rather than race as a means of comparison for US college major distribution – as a point of reference, let’s start once again with the general distribution graph for all majors of all Americans:

Click here for a downloadable image of the chart

The main points here are the same as those pointed out in our “feminization of education” article – basically, that business makes up the largest chunk of all majors at 17.1%, followed closely by Education (which has dropped considerably over time to where it is today, a measly 7.6%) and STEM fields like Science and Engineering.

At this point, everything is more or less to be expected. Looking at the chart for white Americans specifically, we can see that these numbers are essentially the same.

There are only a few real differences here that I could see, but they are all within fractions of percentage points – for example, the general “science” major is slightly less popular for white Americans at 11.9% compared to 12.4%.

We start to see more change when we move into other demographics.

For black Americans, the numbers are similar once again, with the biggest change being found on the left side of the chart. While the change over time of white Americans matches identically the change over time for majors across the board, black Americans arrive at a similar present from a different past.

White Americans have pretty much the same distribution through STEM fields over time and lost education majors in small amounts to all other majors. In contrast, African Americans moved from the education major into STEM fields, increasing to the point that the distribution for STEM fields is essentially what is found on the larger map.

Where the charts really get interesting, however, is with the one showing majors for Asian Americans.

The most striking thing here, first of all, is the almost total disappearance of education majors. If you move your eyes down the chart a little bit you’ll eventually find them hidden about halfway down, but education trickles away into almost nothing when we get to the present day on the right side of the chart.

The biggest chunks of the chart are taken up by Business, Engineering, and Science majors, and what’s remarkable about these majors is that they remain pretty much the same across time. Each of them takes up between a 16-19% chunk of the total major distribution.

We have a few other charts that are interesting to look at. The one for American Indian can be found below:

While undoubtedly these charts are more visually interesting than the others, the jagged edges and disappearing colors reveal one unfortunate truth – we don’t quite have enough PUMS data available to us to say anything revealing about these particular groups.

But let’s backtrack a little bit, and try to answer the question of “why is the chart for Asian Americans so different than for other groups?”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer may lie in American culture itself.

The Cultural Pressures of STEM Fields

While STEM Majors are very highly valued for their expertise in the business, science, and engineering worlds, it’s no secret that they don’t have quite the same influence on pop culture as writers or artists. However, the career prospects of writers or artists can make the idea of breaking into those fields seem like more trouble than it’s worth, especially for people of color.

As this Atlantic article by Julia Lee details, the pressure to enter STEM fields and the societal discouragement of POC from entering creative fields may contribute to some of the continued representation issues still around today. Lee refers to this as a “crisis of representation,” where people of color are erased from books, film, and TV due to their lack of overall representation in creative fields.

This pressure is particularly prevalent within Asian families and communities, and is perpetuated from both within and without. Roughly twice as many Asian students enter STEM fields compared to black, white, or Hispanic students.

Asian cultures tend overall to place a high value on STEM jobs, so a family’s wishes for their child are likely an overwhelming influence. Tuition costs are terrifying these days, and the idea of a new student entering a field with poor job prospects might be too much for some parents to even entertain.

There’s also the meritocratic aspect of these hard science sort of jobs that could be appealing to marginalized groups – with so many societal barriers already in place between people of color and professional success, going into a creative field might seem like you’re only putting up more of these. Engineering or science jobs, however, are more objective when it comes to judging you on your abilities and level of knowledge, which can make it more difficult for someone to be taken advantage of.

But more than that, there’s the outside pressure of society itself. The overwhelming American idea of Asian cultures is that people from these cultures are naturally good at math and science. The basis of this is disputed by this NY Times article by Nicholas Kristof, who writes that white Americans and Asian Americans tend to have the same IQ levels, but that (regardless of this) higher levels of Asian Americans go into “high-status occupations” than whites do – about 50% versus a third of white Americans.

And yet the Asian stereotype persists in American society. Even if, as Kristof argues, this stereotype has occasionally positive effects – it may potentially lead to some sort of expectations that Asian Americans will succeed, giving them more high-level job opportunities – it is still a stereotype with effects that are difficult to parse out. Kristof writes that “Disadvantage and marginalization are complex, often deeply rooted in social structures and unconscious biases,” and it’s important to keep this in mind when discussing this issue.

In Conclusion: Good News, Bad News, and Also More Bad News

In his NY Times article mentioned above, Kristof also describes an idea by scholar Claude Steele called “stereotype threat” – this is a phenomenon that black Americans suffer from wherein the anxiety of a negative cultural perception leads to a decrease in performance. Kristof suggests that the opposite may be true for Asian Americans, and that the “stereotype promise” that they will be diligent, intelligent workers may actually improve their performance.

But this doesn’t mean that discrimination isn’t occurring. In fact, as this Atlantic article by Leah Askarinam lays out, the significant numbers of Asian Americans entering the workforce underscore a larger, less visible issue, which is that relatively few of these workers are being promoted.

There’s no single reason why this is happening, but the general outline appears to be that the same diligence and intelligent personality – which, again, is heavily influenced by internal pressures and external stereotypes – that can lead to jobs for Asian Americans may also lead to a person being quieter or self-effacing in a way that can make asking for promotions or management positions more difficult. This is only compounded in the event of biases or outright racism in a particular company’s high-level management, and can make any significant promotion difficult or (depending on the organization) outright impossible.

The problem is compounded for Asian American women, who (according to this New Scientist article) are “most likely to have graduate education but least likely to hold a position within three levels of the CEO,” and who often feel as though they are competing for a single token spot within a given company.

So while we’ve answered our original question of “who is entering STEM fields” from a demographic perspective, other questions still remain. What exactly is preventing Asian Americans from being promoted? Is it really just a simple matter of speaking up, or is bias and racism still too intertwined in the hiring/promotion process? What can be done to help encourage POC to enter creative fields, while still maintaining a level of realism about the earning potential of those fields?

These are not questions with easy answers, but with a continued cultural focus on inclusive policies and a dedication to working through these issues, it’s possible that the “bamboo ceiling” can continue to be broken through – if nothing else, then at least piece by piece.

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