The financial return to college is not the same for everyone. Students who major in certain fields—especially engineering, computer science, finance, economics, and nursing—dramatically increase the chance that they will earn back the cost of their education. Economic returns for other majors aren’t nearly as strong, and many students who choose low-paying majors are worse off financially for having attended college.
Usually, we regard a student’s choice of major as just that—a choice. But a new study by economists Zachary Bleemer and Aashish Mehta shows that many students who want to pursue a high-earning major like engineering or finance cannot do so. Colleges are actively restricting enrollment in lucrative fields of study.
Colleges are imposing restrictions on popular majors
It is becoming more common for large public universities to impose minimum GPA requirements in introductory courses as a precondition for declaring a high-earning major. For instance, at the University of California-Los Angeles, students who wish to declare a computer science major must earn a minimum GPA of 3.5 (A-) in introductory courses, and also submit a successful application to the computer science department. Aspiring mechanical engineers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign need a minimum GPA of 3.75 (A).
Bleemer and Mehta catalogue such restrictions on declaring lucrative majors at America’s 25 top public universities. Among five high-earning majors (computer science, economics, finance, mechanical engineering, and nursing), three-quarters of academic departments at the top 25 public universities impose a restriction on declaring the major. Usually this restriction takes the form of a minimum GPA requirement, but sometimes departments require an application.
Restrictions on declaring high-earning majors have not always existed. Rather, these controls were implemented at different universities at different times over the last three decades, which provides the researchers with a natural experiment. By comparing data points before and after the restrictions were imposed, Bleemer and Mehta can identify the impact on major declaration and academic achievement.
The authors find that, among students who intend to declare a particular high-earning major, the restrictions reduce the share of students who actually earn a degree in that major by 15 percentage points. The effect is especially pronounced among racial and ethnic minorities, and the authors argue that major restrictions help explain why Black and Hispanic students generally realize lower returns to college than their peers.
Are major restrictions justified?
To be fair, we shouldn’t dismiss major restrictions out of hand. Some academic departments may have good reasons for dissuading students from declaring high-earning majors. Engineering and economics are difficult fields to master, after all. Restrictions may stop some students pursuing fields of study where they will not succeed. Moreover, the university has an interest in ensuring that it only graduates students who are proficient in their fields. Legions of nurses who can’t master the basics of medicine simply wouldn’t do.
But further results dispute this argument. When a major restriction is imposed, the authors find no evidence that it meaningfully improves students’ academic performance. In other words, the restrictions do not nudge students towards fields of study for which they are better suited. A “B” student nudged out of economics simply becomes a “B” student in sociology. The sad truth is that these marginal students have limited preparation for college-level work overall. If society insists that they pursue the four-year college route, they might as well shoot for a high-earning major.
Moreover, employers tend not to care as much about GPA as internships and other work experience. While grades are a good measurement of academic aptitude, the workforce requires a slightly different set of talents—and “B” students can often excel in demanding jobs. If employers truly believe that a GPA of 3.0 or better is necessary to do the work, they can simply ask students for transcripts to prove their academic mettle. Colleges shouldn’t deny students a shot at high-paying jobs simply because of a disappointing grade in a first-year course.
So why do academic departments restrict lucrative majors? Bleemer and Mehta posit that prestige could be one reason. Many departments like to tout the share of their graduates who go on to top PhD programs or other impressive next steps. Restrictions on declaring the major increase the academic caliber of the average student in that major, but only because below-average students are kicked out. More prosaic concerns such as capacity constraints in advanced classes may also play a role.
Creating incentives for better education
Colleges and universities’ primary responsibility is to educate students with the skills they need for the economy’s most in-demand jobs. This is the reason they receive hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies to operate. Right now, the economy needs engineers, computer scientists, nurses, and economists. Unnecessary restrictions on who can receive training in these fields undercut higher education’s most important mission.
The answer is not to ban GPA restrictions. Instead, policymakers should change the incentives facing colleges. Currently, pursuit of prestige leads colleges to nudge students towards lower-earning fields of study. The proper remedy is ensure that expanding access to high-earning majors is financially worthwhile.
One policy option is risk-sharing: colleges should pay a penalty if their students fail to repay their federal loans. Since loan repayment is strongly correlated with income, this creates a direct incentive for colleges to expand enrollment in high-earning fields. An engineer or nurse will usually earn enough to repay her loans. The same can’t always be said for a theater major. If colleges face accountability for poor outcomes, they’ll nudge students towards fields where they can succeed—and help those falling behind reach their full potential.
Policymakers should also level the playing field between traditional four-year colleges and alternative options. Promising college alternatives such as skills-training academies and apprenticeships provide excellent training in lucrative fields like advanced manufacturing and computer programming. These alternatives may also be more aligned to the learning styles of students who can’t manage above a “B” average at a traditional university. If incumbent public universities can’t or won’t educate students in the most needed skill sets, perhaps we should give other providers the opportunity.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom, college is not always worth it. But it can be if students choose the right programs—and if their schools give them the chance to succeed.
Preston Cooper is a Visiting Fellow at the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity. Formerly, he worked at the American Enterprise Institute and the Manhattan Institute. In addition to writing for Forbes, his writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Seattle Times, U.S. News and World Report, the Washington Examiner, Fortune, RealClearPolicy, and National Review. Follow me on Twitter.