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In Economics, Grade Restrictions Weed Out Students of Color

In the summer of 2020, when many college campuses were still coming to grips with the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, students of color in the University of California, Berkeley economics department met with faculty on Zoom to talk about tensions that they and their peers were feeling. The group discussed “very basic stuff,” recalls Teresita Cruz Vital, one of the students who’d requested the meeting: “What is racism? What is white supremacy?” And how were those ideas manifesting in the economics department?

But Cruz Vital says the students also aired a grievance about a department policy that, on its face, appeared to have little if anything to do with race.

Berkeley’s economics department has long required most students to achieve at least a 3.0 grade point average in a set of prerequisite courses — currently statistics, calculus 1 and 2, and introductory and intermediate economics — to gain admission into the major. (The threshold is slightly lower for transfer students.) Similar GPA-based restrictions have been deployed elsewhere at Berkeley, and beyond, typically to limit the number of students pursuing majors strained by high enrollment. They are especially common in science, technology, engineering, and math — known as the STEM disciplines — but they have also proliferated in fields like finance and economics. In 2019, no fewer than 20 of the top 25 public universities in the U.S. News and World Report rankings imposed a GPA restriction on at least one major.

Cruz Vital had a gut feeling, but no hard data to show that her department’s restriction was disproportionately impacting nontraditional and socioeconomically disadvantaged students, who are more likely to come from underrepresented racial and ethnic backgrounds. As cofounder of a student group for underrepresented minorities in economics, she personally knew many of the people who’d fallen victim to the cutoff. What Cruz Vital did not know at the time was that two economists — one at Berkeley, another down the coast in Santa Barbara — were gathering exactly the kind of statistical evidence that could, and soon would, confirm her instincts.

Those economists, Zach Bleemer and Aashish Mehta, analyzed detailed records for 900,000 students who’d enrolled at four University of California campuses between 1975 and 2018, and they found evidence that GPA restrictions do, in fact, disproportionately push Black and Hispanic students out of restricted majors. An apparent effect of the restrictions is to shunt those students from more lucrative majors to less lucrative ones, limiting their career earning prospects well after graduation and contributing to persistent racial wage gaps.

Bleemer and Mehta’s preliminary findings, released last December, have yet to be formally vetted by experts. If they hold up to scrutiny, they’ll add to a growing body of evidence that a culture of competition in many introductory college courses, known as weed-out courses, is exacting an outsized toll on students from underrepresented racial and ethnic backgrounds. For university administrators and department chairs who are struggling to balance scarce teaching resources with shifting student preferences, the findings pose a question with few, if any, simple answers: If it is true that GPA restrictions are disproportionately penalizing Black and Hispanic college students, what can be done about that?

Aa best as Shachar Kariv can remember, there were only 600 students majoring in economics at Berkeley when he first began teaching there 19 years ago. Since then, the major’s popularity has surged nationwide, and the tally at Berkeley has nearly tripled to 1,700, says Kariv, who’s now the department chair. The growth spurt has stretched the department thin. “I don’t have enough classrooms,” he says. “I don’t have enough teaching assistants.”

“We are so large that only half of our teaching assistants are economics students,” Kariv adds. He says he’s had to poach the workers from other parts of campus — the business school, the school of public policy — and has even resorted to hiring undergraduates.

Still, Kariv says that his department’s GPA restriction is not intended as a tool for managing enrollment levels. And the policy has been on the books for decades, since well before the major’s recent surge in popularity. Rather, Kariv sees the GPA threshold as a way to identify students who are unlikely to succeed in the major and steer them to a major where they can be more successful — essentially, a mechanism to save underperforming students from themselves. The view of the department, he says, is that “if you don’t get a B in the basic courses, maybe economics is not for you. You’re actually going to fail, you’re going to struggle.”

When Kariv talks about students who, judged on the strength of their GPA, will struggle and fail, he is talking about people like Emmanuel Prunty.

Prunty left his hometown of Altadena, California for Berkeley in the fall of 2015 on a whim, he says, without ever having visited the campus. He says he’d been dealing with personal things at home, and he knew he wanted to get away: “I just wanted to start off something new.”

The view of the department, Kariv says, is that “if you don’t get a B in the basic courses, maybe economics is not for you. You’re actually going to fail, you’re going to struggle.”

In his first semester at Berkeley, Prunty found himself adrift and isolated. He was often, if not always, the only Black person in his classes. He was short on money, and he couldn’t depend on his family for financial support. And he says he didn’t handle the workload well. “By the time of finals, I was just completely exhausted, depressed,” he recalls.

“The combination of all that, it just crushed me at the end,” he adds. He says he bombed three of his finals and ended his first semester with a 0.67 GPA — one B minus and three Fs, including an F in calculus.

For the next two years, Prunty would try to dig himself out of the hole. He continued to struggle with anxiety during and leading up to big exams, but his grades improved. He fell in love with economics, which he says felt intuitive and made sense to him. He even became an economics tutor, one of several jobs he juggled throughout school to help support himself.

By 2017, he’d nearly clawed his way to the 3.0 GPA he needed to declare the economics major. But the B plus he earned in intermediate microeconomics — the last of his prerequisite courses — was not enough to get him over the bar, and he says he ended up with a 2.93. “I applied to the major and, of course, I got denied because I didn’t have the GPA requirements.”

Prunty remembers it as a painful defeat: “I was the econ tutor who wasn’t even going to be able to be an econ major.”

Prior to coauthoring the new study on GPA restrictions, Aashish Mehta had seen a number of Emmanuel Pruntys pass his way. An economist by training, Mehta teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in Global Studies, an interdisciplinary department that draws from fields as varied as social science, history, and religion in order to understand globalization and its impacts. Mehta says the major has become a popular second choice for students who get pushed out of economics. “Some of them were students who I thought were quite promising, who told me they were interested in economics,” he says. That so many students were being cut off from their major of choice seemed to him like a missed opportunity. “It seemed inefficient,” he says.

Mehta teamed up with a Berkeley graduate student, Bleemer, who is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University and will become an assistant professor at Yale in July, to try to understand how GPA restrictions were impacting students more broadly. The pair looked at more than 40 years of data on student enrollment at four UC campuses — Berkeley, Davis, Santa Barbara, and Santa Cruz — dating back to the 1970s. They used statistical techniques to try to identify the effects of 29 GPA restrictions that were imposed by various departments on those campuses during that time span, and they found that in the years immediately after a restriction was adopted, the share of underrepresented students in the restricted major fell, on average, by 20 percent. Black and Hispanic students, they found, were more than twice as likely as their White and Asian peers to be pushed out of the major as a result of the restriction.

Bleemer and Mehta suspect this disparity can be traced to inequities in pre-college education. “It looks like the students who are able to achieve access to these restricted majors may have had differential access to, say, AP courses in those fields,” says Bleemer.

“They probably came from somewhat higher income families, and so had greater access to academic opportunity before they showed up on campus,” he adds. “These are all things that are correlated with race.”

The results seem to corroborate, with statistical rigor, the view held by many higher education experts that intensely competitive introductory and prerequisite courses are key drivers of attrition for students of color in STEM and other highly technical fields. Studies suggest that these students, in addition to often having limited access to pre-college academic opportunities, may also be more frequently subjected to negative social and psychological cues, such as racial stereotyping or exclusion from study groups. One recent analysis, yet to be formally vetted by experts, suggests that when Black, Hispanic, or Indigenous students do perform poorly in these weed-out courses, the consequences are more severe than for their peers: A student’s odds of completing a STEM major fall considerably if they score a D or worse in even a single introductory course, but the decline seems to be far steeper for women and underrepresented minorities than it is for White and Asian men, even after controlling for academic preparedness.

The study by Bleemer and Mehta also suggests another, very tangible cost of weed-out culture — one that may linger long after graduation and extend far beyond any college campus. The economists found that a cumulative effect of the University of California campuses’ GPA restrictions was to steer Black and Hispanic students into fields that would pay them less, after graduation, than the fields they would have gone into had no restriction been in place. That finding dovetails with a recent study by The Urban Institute, a nonprofit research organization, that showed that Black undergraduates tend to be overrepresented in lower-paying majors like public administration and social services, and underrepresented in lucrative majors like engineering, mathematics, and statistics. Hispanic undergraduates, also underrepresented in STEM, tended to be overrepresented in majors like language studies and linguistics.

“I was the econ tutor who wasn’t even going to be able to be an econ major,” says Prunty.

According to a 2020 report from the Washington, D.C.-based think tank The Economic Policy Institute, Hispanic college-educated workers earn 84.5 cents, and Black college educated workers just 77.5 cents, for every dollar earned by their White peers. Bleemer and Mehta found evidence that those disparities may be partly attributable to the inequitable distribution of racial and ethnic groups between high-paying and low-paying majors — an effect the researchers call the major premium gap. After narrowing in the 1970s and 1980s and nearly closing in the 1990s, the major premium gap has been widening ever since and now stands at about 3 cents on the dollar, equivalent to around $2,000 in lost annual income for the average Black and Hispanic college educated worker, based on average salary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Bleemer and Mehta’s modeling suggests that the gap’s recent widening is largely a biproduct of the rising popularity of GPA restrictions.

Mehta sees a cruel irony at play: The students snared by GPA restrictions are, in many cases, precisely the ones who would benefit the most from being allowed to stay in the major. “Our estimate is that potential earning gain is bigger for the students who got denied than the students who were just let in,” he says.

“If we could allow these students in,” he adds, “we will deliver not just more learning, but also more upward mobility.”

When Prunty, sitting at a 2.93 GPA in his prerequisite courses, was denied admission to Berkeley’s economics major, he still had some recourse. In the economics department, a student who does not meet the major’s GPA requirement can file an appeal. So Prunty did exactly that. He explained the personal trials he’d weathered during his time on campus. He touted his work as an economics tutor, and got his boss to write a letter of recommendation. His macroeconomics professor, with whom he’d built a good relationship, also vouched for him.

When Prunty’s appeal was accepted and he was admitted into the major, it was “like I got this weight lifted off my shoulders,” he remembers. He went on to earn a double major in economics and ethnic studies, finishing with a 3.4 GPA. He now works as a research associate with the Public Policy Institute of California.

But for every Emmanuel Prunty, there are others who are turned away. In the 2014-15 academic year, the economics department rejected 236 applicants to the economics major — around one fourth of the students who applied — according to a study by UC Berkeley’s faculty governance body, the Academic Senate. Cruz Vital, who says she’s helped many peers write appeal letters over the years, has seen some students win admittance, complete the major, and go on to land prestigious economics positions. But she’s also seen the department reject students who’ve attested to suffering hardships and extenuating circumstances. And some students, she says, may be unaware that there is an option to appeal at all: “It’s not something that they actively advertise on the website.”

Both Prunty and Cruz Vital say they would like the economics department to adopt a holistic admissions process for all of its applicants, not just those who are in the position of having to appeal. They’d like to see the department consider not just a student’s GPA but their experiences, their campus involvement, the arc of their academic growth, and other intangibles.

Other departments, including some on the Berkeley campus, already use holistic selection criteria. Bleemer and Mehta find preliminary evidence that, unlike GPA requirements, these holistic admission processes don’t adversely impact racial and ethnic representation.

Kariv, Berkeley’s economics chair, agrees that a more holistic process would be more ideal than what his department currently has in place, but he indicated the department doesn’t have the resources it would need to implement such a system. “I need more undergraduate advisers,” he says, adding that the ratio of students to undergraduate advisers in his department is among the highest on campus. “Because they know the students. They know how to do it holistically.”

The dilemma plaguing Berkeley’s economics department is one that Stephen Schmidt, an economics professor at Union College in upstate New York, has also grappled with in recent years. Schmidt has taught at the small liberal arts school long enough to remember when the economics major first began to boom in popularity there, after the Great Recession of the late aughts. In the span of just a few years, the number of undergraduates in his department swelled by about 50 percent. Eventually, one in five graduates of Union College was an economics major. In response to the rising demand, the department began requiring students to earn a C or better in each of three intermediate economics courses before continuing to the major’s higher-level courses.

Black and Hispanic students, they found, were more than twice as likely as their White and Asian peers to be pushed out of the major as a result of the restriction.

Schmidt is one of the few scholars — aside from Bleemer and Mehta — who have published on the impacts of GPA restrictions. In 2021, he published a statistical analysis showing that his department’s policy dissuaded about six students per year, or roughly one in 17 prospective economics majors, from pursuing the degree. He says he doesn’t have enough data to discern the policy’s impact on racial and ethnic representation, but, on balance, it seems to have slightly boosted representation of women in the major.

Still, Schmidt recognizes that a GPA requirement — for that matter, any system that rations access to education — is imperfect. He’s considered the idea of admitting applicants on a first-come, first-served basis, but he thinks that would favor students who come to campus already knowing they want to major in economics, a demographic he says is likely to skew White and male. Hiring a wave of new faculty to meet the surge in student demand would be impractical, he says — a costly, long-term fix to what might be a short-term problem. A new tenure track professor might stay with a school for decades, but a major that’s trendy today could fade in popularity after a few years.

“There are no silver bullets for this other than to have a whole bunch more economics professors show up. That’s the silver bullet,” he says. “But that’s costly. Very, very costly.”

In the spring of 2020, the Berkeley economics department was subjected to what Kariv, in true economist form, refers to as a natural experiment. In a move aimed at alleviating the stress and anxiety caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the College of Letters and Sciences, which houses the economics department, defaulted to grading courses as pass-no pass, and the economics department relaxed its prerequisite restrictions. Kariv says the policy led the ranks of economics majors to surge even faster than usual — growth that he suggests would not be sustainable in the long run.

In the spring of 2023, the department will undergo an academic program review, a formal assessment performed once every 10 years in which the department takes stock of itself and sets teaching and research priorities for the decade ahead. Kariv said he expects that the GPA restriction policy will be an important part of that review.

Asked if Bleemer and Mehta’s study has changed the calculus on the issue, Kariv answers that it has, but that a sea of other factors and constraints have moved the needle as well. “We always need to think outside of the box,” he says.

“I’m open to any innovative ways to do it better. Absolutely,” he adds. “Do I have a magic wand to do it better? I don’t.”

Ashley Smart is the associate director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT, and a senior editor at Undark.

Ashley Smart is the associate director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT, and a senior editor at Undark.