Why Engineering? College Majors and Earnings for African Americans

Why are you an engineer? In making the decision to major in engineering, I’m sure many of you at least considered earning potential, even if that wasn’t your primary motivation. However, a recent report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce shows that African Americans tend to be concentrated in the lowest-paying majors. Given the vocational consequences of a college major, this pattern presents a significant economic issue for black families.

The report notes that African Americans are significantly overrepresented in “intellectual and caring professions,” meaning their salaries do not reflect their years of higher education. With a bachelor’s degree in fields such as social work and human services or community organization — both fields with about 20 percent African-American graduates — median earnings are around $40,000. With a bachelor’s degree in engineering, an individual makes an annual salary upwards of $70,000, on average. However, only 5 percent of engineers are African American. The salary discrepancy becomes alarming when one considers that it means a difference of well over $1 million in lifetime earnings.

Why might African Americans tend to choose majors with the lowest earning potential? Although the paper does not speculate on causes, I have a few theories. The first is math, or, more accurately, aversion to math. Countless studies have shown that math classes deter African Americans from STEM majors (Elliott et al., 1996; May & Chubin, 2003; Russell & Atwater, 2005): it may be that some black students view less math-intensive majors as less intimidating and, therefore, can easily imagine themselves succeeding in those fields. This is why math readiness is so crucial before entering college. African Americans and their white counterparts enter college with drastic inequalities because of differences in access to higher-level math instruction.

A second theory I have that may explain why African Americans tend to major in low-paying fields concerns the dearth of role models. As the report notes, African Americans are overrepresented in fields like health and medical administration services, human services and community organization, and social work. Thus, young black children see more social workers, office administrators and counselors who look like them. Although these types of jobs are essential, engineering is one of the fastest-growing vocations with the potential for high earnings. Fewer black graduates in high-paying fields means fewer role models for the younger generation.

My final theory related to the pattern of selecting low-paying majors involves the perception of higher-paying majors as more self-serving and less beneficial to the community. Any NSBE member can proudly state that “positively impact(ing) the community” is integral to our identity. However, do other students know that as an engineer, you constantly serve the greater good? Engineers help save the environment, advance medical technology, create safer vehicles and repair crumbling infrastructure. Education and exposure are key. As African Americans, we feel a strong sense of community and want to be part of something greater than ourselves. As engineers, we can lift up our communities while simultaneously securing our own futures.

Primary source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, “African Americans: College Majors and Earnings.”

Other references:

Elliott, R., Strenta, A. C., Adair, R., Matier, M., & Scott, J. (1996). The role of ethnicity in choosing and leaving science in highly selective institutions.Research in Higher Education, 37(6), 681–709.
May, G. S., & Chubin, D. E. (2003). A retrospective on undergraduate engineering success for underrepresented. Journal of Engineering Education,92(1), 27–39. doi:10.1002/j.2168-9830.2003.tb00735.x.
Russell, M. L., & Atwater, M. M. (2005). Traveling the road to success: A discourse on persistence throughout the science pipeline with African American students at a predominantly White institution. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 42(6), 691–715.

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