Are Black College Students Getting the Right Advice?

A new study looks at why they’re largely absent from majors that lead to high-paying jobs.

Gerald Herbert / AP

According to a new analysis by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, black students are far less likely to pursue lucrative college majors than their white peers. Blacks make up 5 percent of computer-engineering majors (average salary $69,000), and 7 percent of finance (average salary $57,000) and marketing majors (average salary $48,000), but 10 percent of students who major in early-childhood education (salary $38,000) and 19 percent of social-work majors (average salary $41,000).

Choosing a major that could lead to financial stability “is especially important to a demographic group that historically has been deprived of opportunities and had fewer economic assets and resources,” notes the report, “making them especially vulnerable to the family stress created by economic ups and downs.”

Why are blacks so concentrated in majors that lead to low-paying jobs? Anthony Carnevale, the director of the center and the lead author of the report, says one factor is personal choice, and another is the fact that black students are concentrated in open-access schools that offer fewer majors and less advising than selective schools about which majors can lead to financially stable careers.

“There’s a huge inadequacy here in counseling,” he says. Right now, high-school counselors are focused on getting their students into college, while college counselors are focused more on getting students into the classes they need to complete their chosen major, and less on what that major should be. “The transition from declaring your major to getting a job is a wasteland,” he said, referring to the fact that few students have a clear idea of how or whether what they are studying in school will lead to a job after graduation.

Carnevale isn’t advocating anything as draconian as assigning people majors, but he does think that if a college freshman says she wants to major in psychology, a counselor needs to point out that she will likely also need a graduate degree to earn a good living. Right now, he says, that’s not happening at schools black students attend most. And while he thinks good counseling is lacking for most students, black and not, black students tend to come from lower-income neighborhoods where student-to-counselor ratios are lower than in upper-income areas. They are more likely to come from families unfamiliar with the college-application process and lucrative industries, such as computer science, which Carnevale suggests can drive these students toward lower-earning professions they are familiar with, such as teaching.

Black students are also less likely than their white peers to have access to private tutors who can offer guidance, or advanced-placement courses that give students a path to different career options.

Research suggests that what students study can matter more than where they go to school. But opening access to elite schools also matters. These schools tend to offer a broad array of majors and resources, along with strong advising, which Carnevale sees as the real “missing link in the American education reform dialogue. It’s kind of the rudder of the ship.” A separate report from the center found that the nation’s 468 most selective colleges spend between two and five times as much per student as the nation’s less selective schools. Some of that is on quality instruction, but elite schools also spend more on advising and career counseling.

The consequences of not equipping students with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions is high. Black students (along with women and Latinos) are most likely to rely on education as a path to financial well-being, Carnevale says, but no major comes with guaranteed earnings, so the risk of choosing a major that will not result in good wages is high, particularly for uninformed students.

All young people need access to better information, but getting good information to students is proving difficult. Part of the problem is that no history department wants to reveal that its graduates are working at coffee shops. Many schools opposed a proposal by the Obama administration to rate colleges based, in part, on how much debt students  graduate with and how much they earn. “There is no pressure on institutions to make less financially secure majors more secure” right now, Carnevale points out. Employers in some cities, such as Houston, are pushing local colleges to make adjustments in the courses they offer to keep up with local workforce needs. But in general, most schools don’t seem to be providing their students with the advice they need.

The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce receives support from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a sponsor of Next America.​