How Higher Education Contributes to Occupational Segregation by Race in the United States

A new report from the Center on Poverty and Inequality at the Georgetown University Law Center examines the role postsecondary education plays in perpetuating occupational segregation.

Occupational segregation harms workers and the economy, according to the report. Occupational segregation is caused and exacerbated by many factors, including: the history and legacy of legal racial- and gender-based exclusion, employers’ discriminatory practices, employers’ racial and gender biases based on stereotypes tied to occupational “fit,” differential exposure to career paths, unequal access to professional networks and career pathways, and inequitable access to quality education and educational attainment across one’s lifespan.

Some key findings from the quantitative analysis of data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and Beginning Postsecondary Students (BPS) Longitudinal Study include:

●  Students enter postsecondary institutions already segregated across fields of study by gender and race. For example, about 10 percent of White students entering college intend to major in natural sciences or mathematics, compared to 6 percent of Black students. Some 6 percent of entering White students plan to major in engineering compared to 3 percent of Black students.

●  Our postsecondary system does little to interrupt this initial segregation, and graduates remain segregated across fields of study by gender and race, including at public universities.

●  Students leaving their first-intended field of study or exiting postsecondary education altogether exacerbates field of study segregation. In 2017, only 10 percent of Black students, who originally declared a computer sciences field of study graduated with a computer sciences degree. In contrast, nearly 29 percent of White students whose original field of study was computer sciences graduated with a computer sciences degree. Similarly, 20 percent of Black students whose original field of study was business attained a bachelor’s degree in business, compared to 45 percent of White students.

●  Field of study segregation between women of color and White men has increased over the past three decades.

The vast differences in fields of study in higher education are a major contributing factor in occupational segregation after students leave higher education. This occupational segregation contributes to persisting racial income and wealth gaps in the United States.

The full report, From Exclusion to Opportunity: The Role of Postsecondary Education in Labor Force Segregation & Recommendations for Action, may be downloaded here.


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