In the United States, there’s a direct correlation between the average earnings of a college major and what percentage of the major’s students are Black. In the highest-paying disciplines—subjects such as computer science, chemical engineering, and finance—Black students are a significantly smaller share of recent graduates than they are nationwide (in the case of those three, the share is below 5 percent, compared to a national share of roughly 10 percent). For the lowest-paying majors, the opposite is true. The subject with the highest share of Black graduates—health and medical administration—leads to first-year average incomes that are tens of thousands of dollars less than finance, and roughly half of what computer science and chemical engineering students go on to earn.
There are many reasons for this correlation, ranging from high school segregation to the relative emphasis these subjects place on bringing about positive social change (see Daniel Block, “Why STEM Needs Social Justice“). It has spurred intense efforts by both policymakers and many universities to graduate more people of color from high-paying fields.
These endeavors are important for the financial well-being of these communities and for the social well-being of the United States. But it’s also important that institutions respect the choices Black students make for themselves, and high-paying fields are far from the only ones worth studying. Indeed, the fields that Black students disproportionately graduate from are essential to both day-to-day life and academic inquiry. Without social workers, the U.S. safety net system would collapse. Sociology leads to a plethora of worthy careers, from political advocacy to urban planning to sociological research itself. This means it’s critical that we work not just to graduate more Black students from STEM majors. It means we need to figure out how to make sure the subjects more Black people already study lead to better-paying jobs.
To that end, the Washington Monthly has gathered newly available data from the Department of Education to examine at which specific colleges the majors (or “programs”) known for high Black enrollment, like social work, lead to above-average earnings. We started by looking at the 38 most popular majors in America and identifying the four with the largest share of recent Black graduates: health and medical administration (26.1 percent of recent graduates); social work (22 percent); criminal justice (20 percent); and sociology (18.6 percent). Next, to make sure we were working with a large enough sample size, we eliminated every school whose program graduated fewer than 50 students in the past two years and then, among these schools, calculated the median first-year earnings for each of the four programs. Then, we cut out all institutions where the first-time, full-time undergraduate Black graduation rate is below 50 percent (the graduation rate for these Black students nationwide is 40 percent) to eliminate institutions that saddle most of their Black students with debt without providing any credentials. To ensure that the graduation rate came from a large enough sample size to be meaningful, we took out every school that graduated fewer than 25 first-time, full-time Black students.
After that, we isolated the colleges where program graduates had above-average earnings relative to program graduates nationwide and where the program graduated an above-average share of Black students relative to its peers nationwide. The result is a list of the schools where the majors in which Black students are most represented lead to well-paying jobs, and where we feel as confident as we can that they are sharing in the returns.
The outcome is somewhat depressing: There are not many programs that meet these thresholds. You may notice, for example, that there’s no health and medical administration list. That’s because every health and medical administration program with above-average earnings and an above-average percentage of Black graduates has a Black graduation rate below 50 percent. For social work and criminal justice, it is only slightly better: Of the 417 criminal justice programs that graduated at least 50 students, only eight make the list. Only four of the 250 social work programs do. Sociology is the sole major of the four that has more than 10 programs that meet the above criteria (we have elected to list only the top 10), a relative abundance powered by the fact that the major is offered and popular at elite four-year schools.
For these top-performing programs, earnings on the whole are still significantly below what they are for high-paying fields. Columbia University’s sociology program, the highest-earning one on this list, has a median earning well below that of most engineering programs. None of the social work programs listed have first-year salaries that exceed $34,500—the median salary for recent college graduates nationwide. Research shows that students who graduate with degrees in more traditional liberal arts fields, like sociology, do eventually catch up to their STEM peers in incomes. But initial salaries are important, especially for students dealing with debt, so it’s distressing that none of these very worthwhile majors yields notably high immediate returns. It is further evidence that there are structural problems with American politics, economics, and society that need to be addressed. We seriously undervalue professions that prioritize helping others and the people of color who are overrepresented in their workforce. (The two are likely related: The high percentages of people of color in these industries could well be part of why, on average, they pay less.)
Even in a far fairer economy, of course, these kinds of fields likely won’t pay as much right out of college as the hard sciences do, which typically demand more taxing, technical knowledge. And to the extent that Black students are drawn to lower-paying fields to help fight structural oppression—for example, criminal justice majors are needed to help address mass incarceration—then the ultimate solution to this imbalance is eliminating systematic discrimination. Doing so might lead some Black students to choose other fields, while also reducing barriers to graduating from those fields.
But, needless to say, dismantling racism is a lengthy task. Until it happens, it’s especially critical that majors with high Black enrollment be more lucrative.
The good news is that they can be. There are schools that graduate these students into well-paying jobs. While none of the listed social work programs had earnings that exceeded $34,500, all of the sociology and criminal justice programs did. And it’s not just elite schools that made the cut. Almost half of the institutions are open-access public schools. Every social work program that appears is offered by a state school, and the only two nonselective institutions on the sociology list are public universities. One of them, the University of Houston, has the highest share of Black graduates of any of the sociology programs, and its median earnings outpace several far more famous colleges. It’s a positive sign that even less-selective institutions can help students in these majors get decent-paying jobs right out of college.
We were able to produce this list only because the Department of Education, after years of promises, finally released earnings data by specific school programs. There’s no doubt that this is useful. But it also has limits. First, thus far, the department only provides information for two years of graduates—2015 and 2016. (To make sure we matched earnings with graduates, we measured the shares of Black graduates using the same years.) Second, it only gives us such data for graduates who are one year out of college. It would be much more helpful if the department provided program-level earnings for classes that are multiple years, and ideally decades, out of school.
The relative paucity of information presents other constraints. The Department of Education does not break down earnings data by race. As a result, it is impossible for us to know if Black students are sharing equally in the above-median earnings. Given that Black people make less than other Americans in the same fields and with the same levels of education, it’s likely that they are not. (Our belief is that the relatively high share of Black graduates in these particular programs means that they are likely still enjoying some of the higher-than-average returns.)
In addition, the department does not provide program-level debt estimates that include family debt, meaning that researchers, including ourselves, cannot accurately measure how much graduates of these programs owe lenders. Given that people of color take on more debt on average than others, the government must determine and then release this information so we can better understand which programs are most financially helpful for minority communities. Similarly, the proxy we used to determine Black graduation rates—first-time, full-time students—is imperfect because it does not capture returning or part-time students, of which Black people also make up a disproportionate percentage. We used it anyway, because the Department of Education provides no part-time or returning student graduation data that is broken down by race. It also doesn’t provide graduation rates broken down by each school’s particular programs.
To fully explore which schools do the best job of helping Black students go into well-paying jobs, researchers need as much granular program-level data as possible that includes outcomes by race. In theory, getting it should be straightforward: Congress must simply repeal a 2008 law that bans the government from being able to track by racial category students’ outcomes after college. There’s already a bipartisan collection of senators who support eliminating this prohibition. In the meantime, the Department of Education can keep publishing data on program-level outcomes so we can see how graduates fare several years after college.
But for now, we hope that our findings more fully illustrate the unfortunate state of majors, race, and earnings—as well as provide some glimmers of hope.