More socio-economic diversity for future economics studies

21-06-2022 | Featured in HP, News

by Anna Stansbury

It is well known that the field of economics has a problem of race and gender. In the United States, the issue is very much felt and many high-level figures, including Treasury Secretary (and former Fed Chairman) Janet Yellen, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell and former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, support the need for rapid change. But economics has another diversity problem that has been largely overlooked: socioeconomic background. In new research, we found that economics is the least socioeconomically diverse academic discipline, in the United States as elsewhere.

This would be a problem in any discipline, but it is particularly relevant in economy. Economists in academia and government influence policy and public debate on a wide range of issues - inequality, unemployment, inflation, access to education and health care, social security and poverty, to name a few - many of them disproportionately affect people who are not at the top end of the income distribution. We know the background of people can influence their contextual knowledge of economic issues, the choice of facts to be investigated and their values. But without many economists from less advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, what kind of perspectives, questions and answers are we lacking?

Take, for example, the wage minimum. Each economist can study the question quantitatively, evaluating the impact of the minimum wage on the income and consumption of workers in the material sense and estimating to what extent a higher minimum wage can cause job losses. Without the lived experience of those who work on a minimum wage week after week, those who survive on it, or those who cannot find a job, it can be much more difficult to fully understand the nuances of formulating policies relating to jobs. quality and a livable minimum wage.

L'access to university is another example. If your parents have both attended college or graduated from college, it will be more difficult to understand the full context of the information 1st generation students have about college, how they make their education decisions, or the barriers. they face, and therefore much more difficult to understand the consequences of decisions on tuition fees or student loan amnesty programs.

Quantify the problem

How big exactly is the problem of socioeconomic diversity in economics? In our new study published by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, my colleague Robert Schultz and I analyzed data from the National Science Foundation's Survey of Earned Doctorates, a survey of all graduate students of US universities. We found that, of the doctoral disciplines, economics is the least socioeconomically diverse of all major academic disciplines in the United States in terms of the percentage of first-generation undergraduate students.

Economics is a great discipline international and parental education has a different meaning regarding socio-economic background in different countries. To make sure our results aren't just due to a different mix of international students across subjects, we also only looked at US-born PhD students.
Among these students, economics stands out even more. It is the sector with the lowest percentage of PhD students without graduate parents and the highest with at least one parent graduate. This means that, among U.S.-born PhDs, the economy is less socio-economically diverse than even subjects stereotypically elitist like the history of art or the classical disciplines.

To be more precise, only the 14% (about one in six) of the PhDs in economics born in the United States in the last decade they were first generation graduates, compared to 26% of all doctoral sectors in the United States. Furthermore, the 65% of PhDs in economics born in the United States in the last decade had at least one parent who was college graduate, compared to the 50% of all PhD sectors in the United States.

It is one thing to compare economics with other academic disciplines. But if we are interested in understanding to what extent the experiences of economists reflect those of the general population, we should compare the background of PhD students in economics with that of the general population. In this case, the disparity is even more evident. Newly born Ph.Ds in economics in the United States are nearly five times more likely than an average American of their age to have a college graduate parent, and only a fifth as likely to come from a family where no parent has a college degree.

All of this means that if we do not consider socioeconomic background in our diversity efforts, we will miss a major drawback and fail to bring the items we need to the table. For example, while men are on average over-represented in economics, first-generation university graduates are heavily under-represented relative to the general population, while socio-economically advantaged women are actually over-represented. Similarly, while whites and Asians are over-represented in economics, white and Asian first-generation graduates are under-represented. Without a focus on class along with gender and race, efforts for diversity is inclusion they may end up favoring socioeconomically privileged white women (like me), who are already over-represented in the discipline, perhaps to the detriment of people of any race and gender who come from an economically disadvantaged background.

Our research also illustrates that for already underrepresented groups, an intersectional lens with social class is particularly important. Among US-born PhDs in economics, the percentage of blacks is already very small, but first-generation black graduates, who face a double disadvantage, are even more disproportionately underrepresented. The picture is similar for Hispanic students. And it's arguably even more true of first-generation black college graduate women getting a PhD in economics, but the numbers are too small to study - a revealing fact in itself.

Diversify specializations

How can we then solve this problem? First of all, it is important to point out that most of the problem does not concern the economy, but the academia as a whole. All academic disciplines are far less socioeconomically diverse than the general population, both at the university level and, in particular, at the doctoral level. This is a demanding problem solutions systemic across academia, including interventions to reduce the cost of access to good education, to increase available information on educational options and educational performance, and to improve support, mentoring and inclusion of less advantaged students from a socio-economic point of view throughout their university or degree course.

But there are also some aspects that seem more specific to the economy. Our research shows that much of the socioeconomic disparity between economics and other doctoral disciplines occurs at the undergraduate level, with a smaller share of first generation undergraduate students specializing in economics than other subjects. This may be due to a lack of access or exposure to economics as a subject. Half of the United States does not require an economics course for high school graduation, and economics is typically a much broader and more popular specialization in private universities than in public ones.

Another possible factor is the content of introductory economics courses. With its emphasis on production functions and indifference curves, as well as aggregate outcomes with respect to inequalities, it can often seem overly stylized and unrealistic, somewhat away from issues that may be particularly important to students from less privileged backgrounds. Doing a better job of reflecting the breadth and depth of issues that economists actually study in introductory economics courses can help increase interest in the subject by students from less advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds.

We can also use better and more inclusive language in economics. Phrases such as "poor skill", "low skill" and "inferior type" are alienating and offensive. There is also a wide range of evidence-based interventions for promote inclusion improving the way we teach, as well as what we teach, such as the use of active learning techniques and the incorporation of inclusive communication.

Building a pipeline

These efforts can help address the socioeconomic disparity between economics and other disciplines that emerges during university. But part of the gap arises between the undergraduate and graduate level. This is where it is especially important to consciously build the pipeline. The path to a PhD in economics is complex - arguably more complex than in many other disciplines - since a successful PhD application typically requires passing a series of advanced mathematics courses (if you are not a graduate of mathematics) and experience as a research assistant.

There are several excellent mentoring programs, but much more can be done to expand resources and mentoring in support of budding economists from less advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, particularly in public universities with more diverse populations and not just the best "universities. of nutrition ”for doctoral programs. Building on other efforts to diversify the academic pipeline, we know that expanding opportunities for feedback, mentoring and support at all levels disproportionately helps people from underrepresented groups, whether defined by socioeconomic context, race or genre.

Part of this effort is structural. But in a profession where individual relationships can change a person's career trajectory, change also requires individuals in the profession to reflect on their own behavior and adapt it. Professors need to consider how we offer ours time it's ours support students and understand that students with less family experience in higher education may be more reluctant to initiate relationships with teachers, may be less aware of the path to their career goals, or what to ask for (be it advice, support, research assistant positions or letters of recommendation) and may have less prior experience with some of the skills they will need to build to be successful. This means that i teachers they must be particularly proactive in offering intensive support to students from less advantaged socio-economic backgrounds during their academic and professional career to become economists.

Finally, we need to understand the problem better before we can completely fix it. In recent years, there has been an indispensable proliferation of surveys and studies on gender and race in economics, as well as rigorous evaluations of programs to improve the situation. But work focusing on socio-economic background was much less so. We need to more data and more attention on the subject to better understand why this problem exists in economics and to understand how to solve it.

We are making great strides in addressing the issues of race and gender diversity in economics. Now is the time to include socio-economic background as well.

Anna Stansbury is a Professor of Work and Organization Studies at MIT's Sloan School of Management and serves on the faculty of the MIT Labor and Employment Research Institute.

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