AuthorWolfe, Rob

Savannah Gonzalez did everything right. Growing up in a poor immigrant area of Los Angeles County, she dreamed of being the first in her family to attend college. Her mother raised her alone, scrimping to pay for tuition and uniforms at Savannah's Catholic high school, where she took AP classes and became a leader in student government. She worked single-mindedly toward her goal, achieving a 4.2 weighted GPA and, after high school, attending a "STEP" program designed to help first-generation students transition to college. In fall 2018, she enrolled at the University of California, Santa Barbara, with a plan: pursue a pre-business major, graduate early, and find a well-paying job to support her family.

But her first semester was a shock. Back home, Gonzalez was surrounded by Hispanic and Asian people in a fast-paced city environment. Here, her new peers were more often white, wealthy, and accustomed to slow days on the beach. In classes, those students quickly formed cliques and shared notes, socializing with an ease she didn't understand. She struggled--one of her required courses, statistics, relied on math that seemingly everyone but her had studied in high school. She failed that class the first time. Then she took it again, studied with all her might, and got a C.

Halfway through Gonzalez's freshman year, a faculty adviser told her that one grade meant she might not be accepted into her chosen major, communications. (UC Santa Barbara doesn't have a business major, so it's common for business-focused students to major in communications instead.) The major is so popular that the university limits enrollment to students who earn a 3.0 or better in prerequisite courses their freshman year. That C in statistics bumped Gonzalez down to a 2.77. When she received an email saying she had failed to qualify, "my heart dropped," she says. Her carefully laid plans were ruined.

"I got in here," she told me this summer, which she spent finishing her degree in a different major. "I did the application. I did the essays. I was accepted. But then there was another admissions process I didn't even know about. It was like running a race with one leg."

Gonzalez's experience is, sadly, a common one. New research from UC Santa Barbara and Yale University indicates that major enrollment requirements like these have been systematically excluding minority and low-income students for decades. Across the country, students who grew up with fewer resources to prepare for college earn lower grades during their freshman year, which means they disproportionately run afoul of restrictions that limit popular majors by GPA. The popularity is the problem: Since college attendance began to rise nationally in the 1970s, universities--most often large, public ones--have protected their limited resources by gating off sought-after majors like economics, engineering, and computer science. The unintended consequence has been that underprivileged students are shunted to less lucrative majors in terms of post-college income, according to a December 2021 study by Aashish Mehta, a professor of global studies at UC Santa Barbara, and Zach Bleemer, an assistant professor of economics at Yale.

The policy is simple--reach the threshold, or don't get in--but it has changed many thousands of lives. Gonzalez, for instance, dropped her plans for a business career and enrolled in global...

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