The one major with the least hope for first-gen students seeking a Ph.D.

Researchers from MIT and Michigan say the lack of opportunities and diversity in this field is impacting the nation.

In 2020, the number of doctoral degrees given by U.S. institutions given to white students was 107,000, four times more than Blacks and Hispanics combined. Those who earn them are more likely to become future leaders, enjoy far more wealth and even have a better chance of getting a mortgage.

They also can set the tone for future generations – and for the better part of the past 50 years, that pattern hasn’t changed much, with some gains being diminished by the COVID-19 pandemic. In higher education, there have been fields in which the gaps for first-generation students are not as sizable, such as education. But there are others where getting a Ph.D. is an absolute afterthought because of past history, because of a lack of outreach, because of elite institutions’ – well, elitism – and because their parents never achieved that goal there either.

The worst of the worst field in terms of socioeconomic disparity among first-gen students has been, ironically, economics, according to two researchers who just published a major study on majors – MIT Sloan School of Management Prof. Anna Stansbury and the University of Michigan’s Robert Schultz. They say the resulting lack of equity and inclusion have profound impacts on those groups and the functions of our nation.

“Economics’ lack of socioeconomic diversity matters for the quality of the professions’ output, but also its policy impact,” said Stansbury, a nonresident senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “Economics plays a significant role in shaping policy and public debate on issues that impact our daily lives from monetary policy and tax policy to welfare spending and healthcare policy. It can affect how much we pay for gas, our mortgage rates, the minimum wage, and the types of jobs available in the U.S.”

In their 73-page report using the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates data, they discovered that five times more students who earned their Ph.D. came from families where parents had earned graduate degrees. They highlight other studies that show the disproportionate number of students from more privileged backgrounds are able to achieve the loftiest academic credentials over low- and even middle-class students.

“If you do not have lived experience with the issues, it is harder to fully understand the context, identify the questions to ask, and anticipate the consequences of decisions,” says Stansbury. “This is especially problematic in economics, which deals with inequality, unemployment, access to education, and many other topics that disproportionately affect people who are not at the higher end of the income or education distribution.”

Economics, in fact, far outpaces health sciences, business management and communication studies and is also ahead of traditionally disparate fields such as engineering, math and computer science for first-gen students who struggle to get doctorates because their parents don’t possess at least an undergraduate degree. For students with two barriers – being first-gen and Black, for example – the odds are even greater. For Black women, researchers say, “the numbers are too small to study.” Even men who are first-generation don’t have nearly the same outcomes as counterparts whose parents have attained degrees.

One intriguing notion proffered by Stansbury and Schultz for economics numbers being so low is that first-generation and underserved students simply aren’t aware that pursuing economics is a possibility. What secondary schools still teach it? And what student wants to pursue a field that presents itself like this:

“With its emphasis on production functions, indifference curves, and aggregate outcomes, Economics 101 can often feel over-stylized and unrealistic, somewhat removed from the issues that may be particularly important to students from less privileged backgrounds – and moreover, it’s not a full representation of what the discipline actually studies,” Stansbury said.

The majority of economics doctorates also are granted by private colleges, which at the elite levels may be far less socioeconomically diverse and contain fewer first-gen students. It’s no surprise too that economics Ph.D. outcomes are lower for those groups because many of the courses that are taken at the undergrad level, like economics, are also not diverse either.

So what can be done? Perhaps a shift in how economics are presented. Researchers said that “the culture of economics academia may be unwelcoming for women and racial and ethnic minorities” and that subject matter covered doesn’t mesh with their own experiences. They also mention the field’s association with conservative views may be off-putting. There also may not be enough true mentors for them or they may have limited knowledge that they are available to connect with them.

“Since 2010, 78 percent of US-born economics PhDs in these programs have been from households where at least one parent has a graduate degree, and only 6 percent were first-generation college graduates,” they write. “And a larger share did their undergraduate degree at one of the 12 Ivy Plus institutions than at any public institution (36 percent, compared with 27 percent). Given this discrepancy, how well can the research or policy advice produced by the economics profession reflect the lived experience of the large majority of the population?”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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