Savannah Gonzalez did everything right. Growing up in a poor immigrant area of Los Angeles County, she dreamed of being the first in her family to attend college. Her mother raised her alone, scrimping to pay for tuition and uniforms at Savannah’s Catholic high school, where she took AP classes and became a leader in student government. She worked single-mindedly toward her goal, achieving a 4.2 weighted GPA and, after high school, attending a “STEP” program designed to help first-generation students transition to college. In fall 2018, she enrolled at the University of California, Santa Barbara, with a plan: pursue a pre-business major, graduate early, and find a well-paying job to support her family.

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But her first semester was a shock. Back home, Gonzalez was surrounded by Hispanic and Asian people in a fast-paced city environment. Here, her new peers were more often white, wealthy, and accustomed to slow days on the beach. In classes, those students quickly formed cliques and shared notes, socializing with an ease she didn’t understand. She struggled—one of her required courses, statistics, relied on math that seemingly everyone but her had studied in high school. She failed that class the first time. Then she took it again, studied with all her might, and got a C. 

Halfway through Gonzalez’s freshman year, a faculty adviser told her that one grade meant she might not be accepted into her chosen major, communications. (UC Santa Barbara doesn’t have a business major, so it’s common for business-focused students to major in communications instead.) The major is so popular that the university limits enrollment to students who earn a 3.0 or better in prerequisite courses their freshman year. That C in statistics bumped Gonzalez down to a 2.77. When she received an email saying she had failed to qualify, “my heart dropped,” she says. Her carefully laid plans were ruined.

“I got in here,” she told me this summer, which she spent finishing her degree in a different major. “I did the application. I did the essays. I was accepted. But then there was another admissions process I didn’t even know about. It was like running a race with one leg.”

Gonzalez’s experience is, sadly, a common one. New research from UC Santa Barbara and Yale University indicates that major enrollment requirements like these have been systematically excluding minority and low-income students for decades. Across the country, students who grew up with fewer resources to prepare for college earn lower grades during their freshman year, which means they disproportionately run afoul of restrictions that limit popular majors by GPA. The popularity is the problem: Since college attendance began to rise nationally in the 1970s, universities—most often large, public ones—have protected their limited resources by gating off sought-after majors like economics, engineering, and computer science. The unintended consequence has been that underprivileged students are shunted to less lucrative majors in terms of post-college income, according to a December 2021 study by Aashish Mehta, a professor of global studies at UC Santa Barbara, and Zach Bleemer, an assistant professor of economics at Yale. 

The policy is simple—reach the threshold, or don’t get in—but it has changed many thousands of lives. Gonzalez, for instance, dropped her plans for a business career and enrolled in global studies, an interdisciplinary field that delves into the effects of globalization. (She met Mehta in a recent class.) Now 21, she’s still figuring out what career to pursue, but for now is thinking of working in nonprofit educational outreach in poor minority communities like hers—a noble path, but not as likely to provide as much financial security as a business career. People’s questions about the future scare her, she says: “A global studies major? What can you do with that? How do you market that?” Meanwhile, though the policy that landed Gonzalez here is easy to understand, any potential solution must wrestle with the fundamentals of how colleges distribute their resources—a much thornier problem.

Bleemer first encountered this phenomenon as a grad student in the economics department at the University of California, Berkeley, which has had a 3.0 GPA minimum since 1976. The grade requirement helps conserve the department’s resources, but its primary function is as a winnowing tool to make sure that the strongest students become majors and lower-performing students are directed to other majors that faculty believe they can better handle, Shachar Kariv, chair of the UC Berkeley economics department, told Undark magazine this summer. (Kariv declined to speak with the Monthly.) Over time, Bleemer noticed that many students who weren’t making it into the major were people of color from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. He wondered if he was seeing a pattern. In University of California schools, whose data on major enrollment is public information, it was possible to find out—and, moreover, to track those trends across decades. So Bleemer teamed up with Mehta, who had been noticing for years that his global studies classes tended to be filled with a disproportionate number of students rejected from majors like communications and economics.

First, the pair made a wider sweep of major American universities to see where and how these restrictions are in place. What they found was that large public schools are far more likely than private ones to limit popular majors by GPA. Among the top 25 publics in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, 75 percent of majors have these policies. Only 20 percent of the top 25 private school majors do. Then they drilled into four schools in the UC system that they believed were representative of the trend and for which they had roughly 50 years of data for 900,000 students: Berkeley, Davis, Santa Barbara, and Santa Cruz.

“I got in here,” Gonzalez told me this summer, as she finished her degree in a different major, “I did the application. I did the essays. I was accepted. But then there was another admissions process I didn’t even know about. It was like running a race with one leg.”

For each major at those schools that limits enrollment by GPA, Bleemer and Mehta compared rates of minority students attending pre-major classes to the percentage who were able to declare those majors. They found that underrepresented minority (URM) “students were over twice as likely to exit the major as a result of the restriction than non-URM students.” They also used SAT scores to track pre-college preparation, finding that those rejected students’ scores were an average of 300 points lower. As
Bleemer and Mehta followed the rejected students through the rest of college, they found that the students tended to flow to the same alternative majors—like global studies at UC Santa Barbara or, at Berkeley, from economics to alternatives such as political economy or environmental policy and economics. Finally, in an earlier study that focused just on UC Santa Cruz, they found that students rejected from the economics major earned an average of $22,000 less per year by their mid-20s. 

Bleemer and Mehta’s latest study is still going through peer review, but their earlier, published Santa Cruz study uses much the same methodology—a common econometric technique called a “regression discontinuity design.” “What they’re doing is very good. It’s very credible,” Sarah Turner, a professor of economics at the University of Virginia, who wasn’t involved in the study, told me. Turner has studied how to improve college access for high-achieving low-income students, and she hypothesized that factors beyond grade requirements might also be limiting underrepresented students’ access to popular majors. Those could include a lack of seats in overfilled prerequisite classes, the “frontloading” of technical information in introductory classes that can obscure the richness and diversity of higher-level courses, and insufficient faculty advising to help those students navigate major prerequisites. Further research will have to confirm these theories, Turner said. But she is certain that, whatever the cause of these disparities might be, it isn’t malice. “When departments introduce these kinds of constraints or requirements, particularly in response to fiscal constraints, it is not with an intent of harming a particular group,” she told me. “It is simply, how do you come up with a strategy to deal with the demand?” 

In California, mid-career business majors earn an annual median salary of $71,000, versus $48,000 for intercultural and international studies, a 2015 Georgetown study reveals. Nationally, according to another study, the median business major can expect to make $3 million over a lifetime, versus $2.4 million for humanities and liberal arts. 

It’s even possible to estimate what Gonzalez, the would-be communications major, could have earned if not for the enrollment policy. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard, the global studies major at UC Santa Barbara has median earnings three years after graduation of $44,390. Communications has $54,875. More broadly, an analysis of earnings data released in 2015 by Anthony Carnevale, a professor of economics at Georgetown, indicates that nationally, “two of the top highest paying majors, STEM and business, are also the most popular majors, accounting for 46 percent of college graduates.” As graduates’ lives go on, the gap gets bigger. In California, per Carnevale’s data, mid-career business majors earn an annual median salary of $71,000, compared to $48,000 for intercultural and international studies. Nationally, according to another, more recent Carnevale study, the median business major can expect to make $3 million over a lifetime, versus $2.4 million for humanities and liberal arts. (The lifetime earnings study used broader categories for undergraduate majors than the earlier study did.)

Though it’s possible to quantify what, on average, is lost to rejected students in terms of post-undergraduate earnings, the loss of their contribution to society is harder to lay one’s hands on. Take Maria Tinoco, who entered UC Santa Barbara in 2020 intending to major in psychological and brain sciences in preparation for medical school. Tinoco, whose family of Mexican immigrants lives in a small, poor, and rural town in Northern California, attended college virtually her freshman year because of COVID-19 restrictions. “We were left basically completely on our own,” she says. “No one explained the process or even the fact that there were requirements for majors.” She didn’t have a strong internet connection at home and was forced to either watch blurry figures jitter on her laptop screen or drive miles away to attend classes from those coffee shops that would let her sit down in the middle of a pandemic. Halfway through the year, she met with a faculty adviser who looked over her course load and grades. The major requires at least a 2.7 in five different classes, as well as a 2.0 in three others, and Tinoco was a long way from the target. The adviser didn’t suggest remedial courses or other options, she says; instead, they told her, “We wouldn’t recommend this path for you.” In other words, Tinoco says, “Don’t even try.”

Tinoco no longer plans to be a doctor. It would technically be possible for her to fulfill pre-med requirements with a global studies major—which is where she ended up—but she can’t afford to spend the extra time and money after wasting so much already. Instead, she’s graduating early with the help of credits she earned in high school. She does not have career plans lined up. Like Gonzalez, Tinoco was a high achiever in high school, doing everything she could to prepare for college as a first-generation student—in her case, by taking classes at a local community college. Yet despite her best efforts, she found herself behind at the start. “For most of us,” she says, referring to the band of first-generation friends she formed at school, “it seems like we’re in a system not built for us. And we feel it.”

Though Bleemer and Mehta’s research clearly articulates the problem, they are still grasping toward potential solutions. Major restriction policies are massively more pervasive at public universities than they are at private universities, but that doesn’t necessarily mean public schools can or will copy what private ones are doing. The scholars are now testing a few theories that could explain the disparity, all of which have to do with intrinsic properties that are hard to change: that prestigious private universities have more available resources to move around, smaller student populations to manage, and an incentive to keep students and parents paying their high tuition.

Gonzalez, the UC Santa Barbara student blocked from majoring in communications, has one idea: student outreach. Though she was behind in college preparation entering her freshman year, there were resources available to help her catch up—tutors, faculty advisers, remedial classes. But as an overwhelmed 18-year-old dumped alone into an unfamiliar environment, she didn’t know where to look. Now that she does, she wonders: What if that help had come to me? Things might have been different, Gonzalez imagines, if, rather than waiting in their offices for her to go to them, faculty and academic support staff had sought her out and told her, “Hey, you’re kind of at a disadvantage, but there are resources for you, and people who want to help you succeed.”  

Another simple and incremental change that could reduce the squeeze on minority students is to make major enrollment conditional on more holistic evaluations, rather than grades alone: faculty and peer recommendations, for example. It doesn’t completely eliminate the gap, but Bleemer and Mehta’s data shows that fewer minority students are excluded by holistic admissions in comparable departments across universities. After they published their research late last year, the UC Berkeley computer science department made plans to eliminate its GPA requirement of 3.3 in favor of a comprehensive model. Eleven other majors will follow suit next year, including economics, psychology, and data science, a spokesperson at UC Berkeley told me. Even so, holistic major admissions is “a second-best policy,” Bleemer told me. “It strikes me that universities would be better off just letting students study what they want.” 

That, however, would require hiring more faculty members and staff—which means the university as a whole spending more money—or reallocating resources from departments with fewer majors. Either way, these are decisions that carry political pitfalls for the deans or higher-up administrators who must make them. At UC Santa Barbara, for instance, faculty in less popular departments push back on the idea of making sacrifices for the sake of in-demand majors, says Tamara Afifi, chair of the department of communications. If college administrators were to redistribute that money anyway, they might have to lay off faculty or let positions lapse through attrition—a decision sure to be controversial. Taking money from departments like Santa Barbara’s global studies to feed demand in STEM subjects wouldn’t be a one-to-one conversion, either; studies indicate that teaching technical fields like engineering costs more per student. And finally, looming above interdepartmental disputes over resources, the larger UC system is making difficult decisions about how and where to spend money in its constituent schools. “It’s a big puzzle,” Afifi told me. “And once you take one piece out it affects everything else.” 

At UC Santa Barbara, faculty in less popular departments push back on the idea of making sacrifices for the sake of in-demand majors. If administrators were to redistribute that money anyway, they might have to lay off faculty or let positions lapse through attrition—a decision sure to be controversial. 

Afifi, who just finished her first school year as chair, said she didn’t want to keep a policy that excludes students like Gonzalez. But for now, she doesn’t see another option. The department has 27 faculty members, 40 graduate students, and close to 2,000 undergraduate majors. That’s up from 1,215 majors five years ago, according to university statistics, with little to no increase in faculty or staff. Classes are bursting at the seams. Afifi recently approached a dean to ask for more resources, arguing that they should be redistributed from departments with less demand. The dean agreed that something should be done, and then passed her on to a higher-up administrator, who agreed that something should be done, and then passed her on to someone else—and so on. “They agree,” she said, “but they don’t give us the funds.” 

To ultimately solve this problem, then, universities must gather the will to rise above internal politics and deliver resources where they’re needed. Until that happens, students like Savannah Gonzalez and Maria Tinoco will be deprived not only of hundreds of thousands of dollars in future earnings, but of their dreams, as well.

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Rob Wolfe is an editor at the Washington Monthly.