Skip to:
  1. Main navigation
  2. Main content
  3. Footer

Encouraging STEM as a College Major

A conversation with Professor Basit Zafar

When it comes to building a productive career, college can make a big difference. Workers with a college degree tend to earn more than workers with a high school diploma. What may be underappreciated, though, is that among college majors, graduates in a field related to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) have higher earnings than those in other areas of study. Women and minorities also tend to be underrepresented in these majors, which contributes to an earnings gap for these groups. This underrepresentation exists at the same time that unfilled positions in the field hold back productivity increases in the economy. This scenario suggests the question: How can we create pathways for underrepresented groups in STEM fields?

To gain some insight on this question, I recently spoke with Basit Zafar. Zafar is a professor of economics at the University of Michigan who studies how college students form beliefs about and ultimately choose their majors. Professor Zafar notes that college majors have significant implications for the labor market and that women and minorities are less likely to choose STEM majors.

Professor Zafar points out that most students enter college misinformed about earnings, occupations, and college majors. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds appear to be even less informed. One way this appears is that, once enrolled, they tend to take longer to drop out or switch majors. These patterns suggest that conducting interventions that help students map their interests to a successful college major could better lead them to a career in a field in which they will thrive.

Professor Zafar also highlighted to me that investments in human capital are sequential. This means that tastes or preferences for college majors are often formed well before students arrive at college. These tastes could be influenced by the differences between boys and girls in investments made early in childhood or by differences in the courses available in one’s high school. This feature of human capital investment indicates to Zafar that starting in the K–12 years is an important way to increase representation in STEM majors.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed. Listen to an extended version of this conversation.

College majors have implications for the labor market

Basit Zafar

There is some mapping of college majors to occupations, and these are going to be quite consequential. College, on average, seems to be worth it for most people. That's pretty well known. Something that maybe arguably is less well known is, even conditional on having a college degree, there are very large differences in earnings across college majors. So, for example, the earnings difference between an engineering graduate or an economics graduate and someone who majors in education tends to be as large or even larger than the earnings differential between an average college graduate and a noncollege graduate.

Men and women choose different college majors

Basit Zafar

Men and women choose very different college majors. Again, that's something that has changed over time. Earlier on, for example, a lot of female college graduates used to, for example, major in education. Over time, the share of individuals who are majoring in education has been going down for both genders, but much more so for females. And over time, if you look at the share of individuals who graduate with majors in business, especially if you look at the gender gap, the gender gap has closed quite a bit.

Women are underrepresented in STEM fields

Basit Zafar

If you look at engineering, or economics even, there was some closing of the gender gap earlier on in the '80s, but this is where there is clearly an issue in the pipeline. Very few females decide to major in economics, and then that has implications through the entire pipeline.

If you look at this question of “Why are fewer women going into STEM?” there are many hypotheses. Historically, people have talked about maybe there are differences in ability, and we know (laughs) that's not the case. If anything, on average, girls are coming in with higher verbal scores, and even math scores, for many of these selective schools. So, ability is not an issue.

So then it has to be something else. And we do know—I've done some work and a lot of other people have done some work—that what economists call preferences or tastes are driving these choices. Another way of saying that is—the reason why females are not going into some of these fields is because, in relative terms, they have a preference to study some other fields like humanities or social sciences and so on.

Another question is, “Where is that preference coming from, right?” That's a much harder question, but, as a profession, we have made some progress on that question. Part of where that preference is coming from is the fact that if you look at fields like economics, they tend to map onto occupations that are less flexible, for example, or they’re less likely to offer the kinds of amenities where we know that there are gender differences in how these amenities are valued.

First-generation college students are enrolling in and completing college at lower rates

Basit Zafar

Children who are first-generation kids, where neither parent went to college, or if you look at these differences by minority status, you see there are very large gaps in terms of college enrollment. And also, conditional on college enrollment, the dropout rates tend to be much higher. I think what is concerning a little bit, when you look at a group like Blacks is, the enrollment of these students in college and completion rates actually have been going down in recent years. So, I think this is where not only is there a very large socioeconomic gradient, but, in some ways, if you look at the data very closely, these gaps are actually getting larger over time.

Misinformation is a problem for students when choosing their college major, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds

Dionissi Aliprantis

How does an 18-year-old that comes to college and maybe doesn't know everything about the world (laughs), how do they learn about earnings and occupations?

Basit Zafar

What we do know is some individuals never learn. Or, put another way, the speed of learning differs. We already talked about college completion rates being pretty low, but if you look at what happens in terms of trajectories once individuals are in college, they look way different for first-generation kids or kids from lower socioeconomics status (SES) backgrounds. Even if they're going to drop out, it takes them longer to drop out. Or if we look at the major-switching patterns, not only do they switch at higher rates, it takes them longer to switch majors, because they're learning at very different rates.

So, how do individuals learn? Taking a step back, individuals are coming into college with very different information sets. On average, individuals are quite misinformed, but the level of misinformation is going to be much larger, unfortunately, for students from more disadvantaged backgrounds. In some ways it makes sense, because, if you think about it, in the US, schools and neighborhoods are segregated by income. Individuals who are coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, they're coming from neighborhoods or from schools where less information was available. So, they arrive in college with much less information.

And then in terms of the support setup, not by construction, it just happens to be very different, right? If you're a first-generation kid, you have fewer people to talk with around you.

Dionissi Aliprantis

Economics could be an example of people simply being misinformed about what the field is.

Basit Zafar

I think part of what is happening has to do with the way we teach economics and the framing. If you think about it, when you talk with people, their notion of what economists do is really specific, right?

Dionissi Aliprantis

Oh, yeah. (laughs). Oh, yeah.

Basit Zafar

You go to a social gathering, and they ask you, "Oh, how is the economy doing?"

Dionissi Aliprantis

Or, “Should I invest in some stocks?”

Basit Zafar

Exactly. Some economists work on those issues, but that's a very small subset of the field.

You asked earlier how I arrived where I arrived. And I think what I find fascinating about economics—and this might seem cliched—is that with economics, you can frame pretty much every person around you in economic terms. And economics is really pretty broad (laughs) in terms of the questions we study and we can study. But I don't think students or individuals realize that when they come to college.

Dionissi Aliprantis

They have maybe a caricature of the field or of the topics or approaches that we actually are able to employ.

Basit Zafar


Lack of preparation during K–12 schooling is a barrier to choosing a STEM major, especially for students from disadvantaged backgrounds

Dionissi Aliprantis

What are the factors that motivate people when they're choosing their majors?

Basit Zafar

We also know that students sort into fields based on what we'll call tastes or preferences. When we say this is pretty well documented, that females, in relative terms, have a taste for humanities or social sciences relative to engineering, what does that mean? It could mean many things. We do know from a large body of work that there are gender differences in workplace preferences. So, for example, females prefer having job flexibility, and they also prefer having job stability. Males, in relative terms, like workplaces that are competitive in nature.

We know that females and males also value different things in terms of what the job would entail. It's pretty well documented, again, that females like jobs where there is more in-person interaction. And these are going to have implications for the choice of major.

There is work by sociologists that parents tend to make very different investments earlier on in boys and girls. And then there is the question of whether those differences are what are making females think they're going to enjoy social sciences and humanities more. I think it has to be some of those things.

I think this is where we run into an issue where I think the nature of human capital investments is that they're very sequential, and a lot of these tastes are forming much before students are arriving in college.

I think if we really want to make a dent in these gaps, sure, we have to start somewhere. But if we start in college, I think we're only going to make limited progress. STEM is always a big policy concern—that there are not enough STEM graduates. But if you didn't take certain courses in high school—I can do whatever interventions I want to do; and I can double the returns to a STEM degree—but if you didn't come in with certain kinds of courses, or a certain kind of prep, there's no way you could move into those majors.

I'm glad that schools are actively now trying to talk about equity and inclusion, but I think that they shouldn't stop at the admission stage. You really need to provide some of these other support setups. I think there has to be awareness that these students, for no fault of their own, are coming in less prepared.

The ways K–12 schooling operates in the US, we tend to have segregation of neighborhoods. Kids who are coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, they are coming from very different neighborhoods—very different schools, which had fewer resources—and they're coming in less prepared. So, once they come to college, you need to provide more of a support setup.

Hal Martin and Andrew Zajac contributed to this article.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the participants and do not necessarily represent the views of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland or the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

Basit Zafar
Professor Basit Zafar

Professor of Economics
University of Michigan

Basit Zafar is a professor of economics at the University of Michigan. His research spans several subjects, including higher education, gender differences, household finance, and information friction. He has conducted several studies to learn how students choose college majors and form expectations about their academic and labor market success. Dr. Zafar earned his bachelor’s degree in engineering and economics from the California Institute of Technology and his PhD in economics from Northwestern University.

Questions or comments about the Program on Economic Inclusion?