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February 18, 2016

According to a new study by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, black college students often choose majors that lead to low-paying jobs. (Courtesy of Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, African Americans: College Majors and Earnings)

A new study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce finds black students disproportionately major in teaching and caring professions that benefit society but don't have much financial payoff. At the same time, more African Americans are going to college than ever before.

“They’re all going to the right church, they're just sitting in the wrong pew,” said economist Tony Carnevale, director of Georgetown’s Center who co-authored the study.

One problem, Carnevale points out, is that while more black students are going to college, they’re not going to the country’s best colleges.

“There is a small share of African Americans who go to the top 500 elite colleges. The vast majority go to open-admission, four-year schools,” he said. In those schools, the “menu of majors” isn’t as broad.

Carnevale says there’s no immediate fix, because America’s four-year private colleges tend to admit students on the basis of their test scores and whether their families can afford to pay.

“In both cases African Americans are disadvantaged," Carnevale said. "We’ve got to move the quality to them.”

Sociologists, though, say it's more complicated than that.

Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Natasha Kumar Warikoo says black students are certainly making choices that might not benefit their wallets, but they’re making them in a complex world.

“What are the people around them doing? The people who are successful, what kind of careers are they in? Where do they see themselves? I think that’s one big set of questions that we’ll see variations by race. When you look in particular fields like pharmacy, you don't see a lot of black pharmacists,” said Warikoo.

And Warikoo points out that you can’t blame black students for wanting to go into social careers like teaching that serve their communities. That, she says, is a good thing for the congregation, no matter where they're sitting.

Guidance counselors agree. 

Earlier: How One Affluent Town Helps Its Neediest Students Get Into (And Stay In) College

“It’s always important to study something that interests you because if you have absolutely no interest you’re not going to stick with it,” said Catherine Chiu, director of guidance for Boston Public Schools. She directs nearly 100 guidance counselors, who – on average – advise 100 to 300 students.

Chiu says the Georgetown study, which calls for better advising, confirms conversations she has with many black students. BPS is trying to expose students at an early age to more lucrative careers in science, technology, engineering and math through job shadow programs and other initiatives.

“Some of our students, with our partners, are actually doing college tours. We’re very lucky in the City of Boston. We have a lot of college access and non-profit partners that help us with the work,” she said.

Chiu says guidance counselors should help their students better understand workforce demands and what employers want.

confronting cost, increasing access and success

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