Segregated by Subject: Racial Differences in the Factors Influencing Academic Major between European Americans, Asian Americans, and African, Hispanic, and Native Americans

By Simpson, Jacqueline C. | Journal of Higher Education, January 2001 | Go to article overview

Segregated by Subject: Racial Differences in the Factors Influencing Academic Major between European Americans, Asian Americans, and African, Hispanic, and Native Americans


Simpson, Jacqueline C., Journal of Higher Education


In addition to race and gender, education is a determinant of status in U.S. society: The more years of education an individual receives, the greater the likelihood that individual will command greater occupational prestige and higher income. Because of its impact on status attainment, researchers have spent considerable effort examining factors that influence level, or years, of education.

This focus on level or years of education has superseded an additionally important aspect of education: content or subject matter. Subject matter, specifically in the form of academic major in college, influences, among other things, differential occupational opportunities and rewards (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991). In particular, baccalaureate degrees in technical programs lead to more lucrative early careers than degrees in nontechnical programs (see Table 1). [1] Engineers and physicists, for example, had starting salaries in 1997 of $38,719 and $35,554, respectively; the starting salary for people with baccalaureates in the humanities was $25,078, and in business it was $29,346 (Statistical Abstract, 1998). [2]

Some claim that Asian Americans have succeeded economically because, like whites, they choose technical academic programs, such as engineering, which result in higher incomes (Winnich, 1990). But is this true? Do Asian Americans and European Americans choose different college majors than other racial groups? In this analysis, I consider the choice of academic major for members of different racial groups, identify what factors influence that choice, and assess whether these determining factors differ by race. To accomplish this, I consider factors identified by the status attainment tradition which potentially influence a student's educational experience.

Potential Explanations

Although most research on status attainment and racial inequality has not focused specifically on academic major, it has identified determinants that influence the level of educational attainment. These determinants have been specifically directed toward level of educational attainment, but arguably, they could also influence choices made regarding academic major. I will briefly describe each of the determinants and explain its applicability to choice of academic major.

Family Socioeconomic Status

Socioeconomic explanations of status attainment suggest educational structures reproduce the social order; that is, parents' socioeconomic status is an important determinant in the educational attainment of their children (Blau & Duncan, 1967; Coleman et al., 1966; Sewell, Haller, & Ohlendorf, 1970; Sewell & Shah, 1967, 1968a, 1968b). Although the mechanism that results in this reproduction has never been specified, neo-Marxists (Bowles & Gintis, 1976; Carnoy, 1975; Levin, 1976) refer to the educational impact of family SES as the correspondence principle: The social relations of schooling and family life correspond to the social relations of production such that the class hierarchy of the larger society is reproduced and reinforced in the educational system. [3]

A strict application of the correspondence principle to choice of academic major would imply that children follow directly in the educational and occupational footsteps of their parents. African, Hispanic, and Native Americans are disproportionately represented at the lower socioeconomic levels (Statistical Abstract, 1998). If class position is reproduced in the educational system, as neo-Marxists contend, I would expect more African, Hispanic, and Native American students to choose academic programs, such as the social sciences, which typically lead to less lucrative jobs.

Academic Preparation

The National Research Council (1992) and others (Anderson, 1977; Berryman, 1983; Hanson, Schaub, & Baker 1992; McDonald, Clarke, & Dobson 1990; McJamerson, 1991; Pearson, 1987; September, 1990) use a "pipeline" metaphor to explain the small numbers of African, Hispanic, and Native Americans in postsecondary education in the United States.

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Segregated by Subject: Racial Differences in the Factors Influencing Academic Major between European Americans, Asian Americans, and African, Hispanic, and Native Americans
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