Math-oriented fields of study and the race gap in graduation likelihoods at elite colleges

Dafna Gelbgiser*, Sigal Alon

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This study examines the relationship between chosen field of study and the race gap in college completion among students at elite colleges. Fields of study are characterized by varying institutional arrangements, which impact the academic performance of students in higher education. If the effect of fields on graduation likelihoods is unequal across racial groups, then this may account for part of the overall race gap in college completion. Results from a large sample of students attending elite colleges confirm that fields of study influence the graduation likelihoods of all students, above and beyond factors such as students' academic and social backgrounds. This effect, however, is asymmetrical: relative to white students, the negative effect of the institutional arrangements of math-oriented fields on graduation likelihood is greater for black students. Therefore, the race gap is larger within math-oriented fields than in other fields, which contributes to the overall race gap in graduation likelihoods at these selective colleges. These results indicate that a nontrivial share of the race gap in college completion is generated after matriculation, by the environments that students encounter in college. Consequently, policy interventions that target field of study environments can substantially mitigate racial disparities in college graduation rates.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)150-164
Number of pages15
JournalSocial Science Research
StatePublished - 1 Jul 2016


  • College major
  • Elite colleges
  • Fields of study
  • Graduation likelihoods
  • Math-oriented fields
  • Race gap


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