Top black grads take low-paid, ‘racialized’ jobs

Black graduates of elite colleges choose low-paying, low-status, “racialized” jobs in education, social work and community and nonprofit organizing, according to Opting Out: Losing the Potential of America’s Young Black Elite. Blacks with prestige degrees rarely choose high-paying, high-prestige careers in finance, science, information technology or engineering, concludes Maya A. Beasley, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, who also serves on the board of the Institute for African Studies.

Not everyone is cut out to be a great social worker, she writes. Some would contribute more — and earn more — as brain surgeons or business leaders.

. . .  according to the 2000 Census, the top 20 white-collar careers among both black and white employees include elementary and secondary education as well as registered nursing. But break it down further and you’ll find that white people hold proportionately more high-status positions: lawyers, physicians, surgeons, chief executives and financial, general and operations managers. Black employees, in contrast, trend toward “service-oriented, racialized jobs” including counselors, education administrators, preschool and kindergarten teachers and community and social service specialists.

Beasley interviewed 60 students — 30 black, 30 white – at Stanford and Berkeley. “Black students aspired to careers in which they have greater numbers and/or to racialized occupations,” she writes. Whites “showed a more diverse range of occupational interests.”

Colleges should discourage blacks from self-segregating on campus, Beasley advises. Minority-themed residence halls may limit students’ networking opportunities and fan their fears of racism. In addition, colleges should encourage black students to go into science and engineering fields where some feel unwelcome.

About Joanne


  1. Walter E Wallis says:

    After a half century of affirmative action, its failure is apparent to anyone. Now is the time to go back to the greatest victory of the 70s, and make ANY reference to an individual’s race illegal. Segregation is wrong even when it is voluntary. Eliminate all race based classes and studies. Treat EVERY student as an individual.

  2. I’d like to see a study comparing blacks & whites with similar academic credentials. That’s the only way to know whether the disparity reflects black students squandering their talents vs. being on average less academically qualified than whites.

    One of the brightest guys I knew in college was a pre-med who happened to be African-American. He was adamantly against affirmative action policies because he felt that it created an atmosphere where blacks were automatically assumed to be unqualified and only there because of special preferences. It made him a bit of a pariah with the other black students, but I had to admire him for speaking an unpopular truth.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    I’d like to know the proportion of these cases where the folks are affirmative action admits.
    if they were, by definition, they were not qualified. If they’d been qualified, they’d not have been AA admits.
    I know, I know. Life experiences and so forth–which whites and Asians don’t have–makes them qualified.
    Anyway, if they’d been four years among people who were more qualified, the possibility exists that they felt inadequate and there’s social work. If you screw up in social work, how would anybody know?
    That presumes, of course, that the non-AA admissions requirements have any real world value, such as predicting graduation probability or graduation grade point or time to graduate and other such irrelevancies.

    • Marktropolis says:

      Read Shape of the River. All your data is there. And you’re assumption that they are “affirmative action admits” only tips the reader to the lens you’re operating with – that virtually any nonwhite who went to an elite school *was probably* an affirmative action admit.

  4. Black students have been told all their lives that there are no academically significant statistical differences between blacks and Asians (never mind whites) — which is a lie, not merely untrue — and that any underrepresentation *must* therefore be the result of discrimination. Then they end up at Caltech or MIT (and not as AA admits), look around and see hardly any other black faces, and it is entirely logical for them to conclude that they are or will be unwelcome. If they knew how unusual they really were, statistically, they would have no reason to make that disastrous inference.

    Women are severely underrepresented among tall people, but it doesn’t make them think they’re shorter than they are. They know they’re just rarer.

  5. Somehow, I doubt that there are many social workers who have the desire or ability to be brain surgeons or business leaders. I agree with the comments about the poisonous aspects of AA/diversity; it saps individual effort and fosters negative stereotypes by deliberately defining people by race and placing them in situations where their credentials don’t allow them to compete equally. At least the author does question the desirability of self-segregated campus housing, but most of her other recommendations are only more of the same programs that have created the problem in the first place. I also wonder if some of those working in the softer, lower-status jobs were law/bar exam washouts; Sanders has documented that their significantly lower LSAT scores result in higher dropout rates and high bar exam failure rates.

  6. I should have added that lots of people feel unwelcome in STEM majors – because they can’t do the work. Math is the foundation of STEM fields (including nursing, med tech and lots of the finance/quantitative areas) and far too many kids don’t have the preparation. Such fields also require hard work and a big time commitment – labs etc. Those are primary reasons why such majors have always had high dropout rates. Watering down – fundamentally changing – the majors is a terrible idea, even if the goal is to make them more attractive/achievable to women and other URMs.

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    Linda S.
    All that you say is true, except for AA admits who, rare or common, are, by definition unqualified. They go four years among folks who are qualified. Got to have an effect.

  8. Thinly Veiled Anonymity says:

    This phenomenon, if it’s real, might have something to do with all that “Give something back to your community” bullsh*t that minorities are constantly bombarded with in college.

  9. How depressing but very predictable for the usual peanut gallery on this blog… an interesting post on apparently why black graduates from elite schools cluster in certain lower-paid service fields rather than more elite professions… and every single one of you focus on: “hey they are actually unqualified dolts, not “real” graduates of elite schools, but affirm-action riff-raff who had no business even being in such schools.”
    How pathetic.

    • Thinly Veiled Anonymity says:

      every single one of you focus on: ‘hey they are actually unqualified dolts, not “real” graduates of elite schools, but affirm-action riff-raff who had no business even being in such schools.’
      How pathetic.”


      Hmmm. Really?

      As it happens, I think we agree about tarring groups of people with too wide a brush. It makes one look… well, “pathetic” is as good a word as any.

      • By definition, AA admits are less qualified than regular admits. If they have the same qualifications as others, they are not AA admits.

    • I actually think there should be some affirmative action for low-income students who will be the first in their families to attend college. However, I think that these students would be best served with an intensive post-high school prep year focused on shoring up their academic preparation before starting college. I tutored a girl who was pre-med and had grown up on an Indian reservation. She was very bright but academically underprepared for the rigors of college coursework because the schools she had attended K-12 were so weak. I don’t think she was the only one in that situation. The university we attended has a large enough endowment that they could fund a year of this kind of prep for promising disadvantaged students.

      I don’t think colleges should be giving AA slots to the kids of black & Hispanic professionals because they haven’t faced the same kind of hardship that their low-income, first generation to attend college peers have.

      • Genevieve says:

        There are summer programs for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. I know that my state university runs one and the students start in middle school (maybe 8th grade). I had a friend in high school that participated (we were both students at a gifted magnet program).
        However, I wonder what is actually taught in the classes. Is it just fun activities? Or is it actually providing necessary instruction?

  10. Deirdre Mundy says:

    If the black students are coming from high schools that didn’t push them in Science and Math, they won’t be able to handle the STEM majors in college, no matter what their native IQs— Math builds, and if you aren’t ready for Calculus your freshman year, you’ll never make it in an STEM major–and at least at my college, it really helped if STEM folk had already taken AP Calc before they got there– a lot of physics and chem needs calculus, after all, and the STEM tracks were very intense.

    Colleges can’t fix this disparity—even high schools are really too late in the game. If we actually care about getting more black students into STEM fields, we need to start with good solid math curricula from day one.

    • Yes! I couldn’t agree with you more. I am a college physics professor at a public university. There is very little we can do at the college level to make up for 13 years of falling behind in math. We have had a *few* successful students who entered with only algebra II… they took remedial classes, caught up in math, then went on to STEM majors… but it takes 6+ years… unfortunately, this is the exception… the pipeline for math/science needs to be remedied much sooner… college is too late… high school is too late (almost)… middle school really needs to be the last stand.

      I agree that if intelligent black students end up in university, but are behind in math courses, usually they just won’t major in science/engineering at all… (actually, that is true of any student of any race who is behind in math). It just takes too much time, effort (and money because they won’t graduate on time) to major in STEM.

    • I see AA as part of the problem. I’ve known many black and Hispanic middle-upper-middle class kids from strong suburban schools who did not take the calculus/other AP classes because they knew they could get away with doing less than their white and Asian classmates; they would get into the same colleges regardless.

  11. Yale Law Professor Stephen Carter openly acknowledges he was admitted to Stanford via affirmative action (he was originally rejected by Stanford who actually thought he was white… when they realized he was black, they then extended him an invitation to attend Stanford). That opportunity apparently did not hurt him… he ended up going to Yale Law, clerking for Supreme Court justices, and is now a law professor at the number 1 law school in the country.

    But apparently, according to Richard Aubrey, Professor Carter is just an unqualified fraud… you make it quite clear that “affirm action = unqualified by definition.”

    • jab-
      Why do stereotypes exist? Largely because there is some truth to it. Yes, you can easily find AA graduates who buck the trend, but one example does not disprove the trend.

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        A very recent study showed that AAs that were accepted to elite schools but chose instead a tier-two school had more professional success.

        I wish I could find the article now.

        • That would be interesting to see. I have 4 close black friends who all were accepted to Ivy League/Stanford/MIT type schools… they were all STEM majors… all 4 chose to attend historically black colleges and universities (Spelman, Morehouse, Howard, and FAMU) instead of the “elite” schools to which they were accepted… interestingly enough, they all graduated with honors, attended prestigious grad schools (Stanford electrical engineering PhD, Berkeley bioengineering PhD, Berkeley theoretical chemistry PhD, Harvard MBA). One now works for NASA, the other two are professors, and the next is a hotshot biz type in Washington DC.

          One common thing shared by all is very strong sense of their self-worth and confidence. These are just anecdotes… but I have heard that HBCU’s do a solid job of training STEM majors, moreso than the black students at “elite” schools… I would like to see a study of this.

          • superdestroyer says:


            Four year graduation rates:

            Florida A&M 12%
            Morehouse 39.5%
            Howard 47%

            Compare to MIT at 82%. Attending an HBCU is a dumb decision for any STEM person .

            If you think Spelman prepares students, I suggest you read

          • Superdestroyer…

            That is not a fair comparison… the student bodies at MIT vs. HBCUs is VERY different… OBVIOUSLY.

            The correct comparison is between students who have been accepted at elite schools, but still choose HBCUs. For example, FAMU overall has a pretty poor graduation rate… but within the larger university, they have a very highly regarded honors program for science… FAMU, in terms of just numbers, has very large number of National Merit Finalists. Their honors program does a surprisingly good job of attracting high talent black students away from the elite schools.

            Regarding Spelman… I use the Force diagnostic in my physics classes. The results at Spelman are pretty standard… the % gain at the vast majority of school is in the 20-30% range. The fact that Professor Camp got unusual results at Coastal Carolina is not a fair comparison. If you look at national research on physics education, Coastal Carolina is an outlier (its easier to get a high gain when your students come in as brain-dead slackers). I have studied the use of the diagnostics tests, and the 20-30% gain at Spelman is respectable and pretty similar to most other institutions.

        • A recent study found that black students graduating from Duke’s law school passed the NC bar at a significantly lower rate than the grads from one of the historically black state law schools.

  12. The school I graduated from had a rather isolated African American house program… the same building housed the students and also had a large selection of “Studies,” sociology, and political science classes. Except for the occasional math, science, or language credits that were required, the students who lived there were rarely seen elsewhere on campus with the exception of the occasional rally or protest (they even had their own in-house co-ed fraternity).

    I wonder how much influence the in-house advisors (each from a “racialized” academic area) had in the class and career choices of the students who lived there. It seems that if you take undecided freshmen, no matter their ability, and only expose them to a limited number of fields, then they will largely go into those fields themselves.

  13. Stacy in NJ says:

    I wonder if AA’s from elite schools don’t to a certain extent resent the institutions they’ve graduated from because they’ve been used as a kind of window dressing. The radical black culture of the ’60’s and ’70’s was more or less co-opted by the elite schools. They provide the appearance of equality and mouth all the appropriate platitudes, while not actually providing/creating/backstopping it. Also, Ivy League school are completely careerist. I’m guessing AA’s come into the schools with a less developed skill set in that regard.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Adding further to my thoughts…

      41% of the black students accepted to Harvard last year weren’t African-American, but, rather, African, the majority of them from rich Nigerian families.

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        Also, I think Harvard and all the other Ivy schools should open boarding schools for disadvantaged black kids who show academic promise. They should offer free of tuition a high quality 7-12 education on par with the best private schools paid for via their endowments. Affluent AAs and Africans need not apply – only for the poor. That’s what they would do if they really gave a sh*t about poor blacks in America. Of course, this proposal is probably racist in some respect that I just can’t identify.

  14. Richard Aubrey says:

    jab. You’ll note the good professor didn’t do his STEM thing. We do note that being black got him in.
    From time to time there are exceptions. Line up all the rest. All the rest, so many that they’re a majority.
    Start right in.
    And then prove that he didn’t get an AA boost in his further positions. We know Obama got himself a prestigious post at the law pub at Harvard. He’s a real genius, right?
    Now, I have no idea whether the professor got where he is by virtue of AA. But his problem, and that of a good many other blacks, is that we KNOW, by his own admission, that being black got him in the door. Do we KNOW that it was solely his merit that got him further? Of course we don’t KNOW it. All we can do is insist that anybody who wonders is racist so shut up. And because of him, and many others, any black who got where he or she is by merit is suspect. Which is not their fault.
    I’d say it’s partly yours.

    • Unlike you, Richard, I do not hold the accomplishments of black professionals suspect for the rest of their lives because they got a tiny bump in college admissions when they 17 or 18 years old. I tend to look at the body of their accomplishments AFTER college to see whether they earned their success. Affirm action gets them in the door… It gives an opportunity. But all the success after that still has to be earned.

      So YOU may still wonder about Prof. Carter’s professional success as an adult, but that says more about you.

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        Here’s the problem jab: It’s not a tiny bump. Do some research on the SAT or ACT score advantages AA’s receive. That bump is sometimes a mountain. Also, unofficial affirmative action policies continue outside of acadamia. Everyone likes the appearance of diversity – business as well as universities.

      • Affirmative action gets them in the door?

        And what’s waiting on the other side of the door for unqualified entrants? Not a smooth skate to a degree. Turns out schools aren’t willing to graduate students who can’t do the work which, by definition, many affirmative action entrants *can’t*.

        Gee, how lucky for them they get an opportunity to help the school prove its commitment to racial justice and only at the cost of their future. What a deal!

        Like all affirmative action excuse-makers your concerns end with a proud march through the front door of Big Name U and no concern with a depressing, humiliating and quite often financially ruinous boot out the back door.

  15. Richard Aubrey says:

    Oh, yeah. Recent AP story about Asians lying about race. Claim they’re white. Easier to get into top schools if you’re white. There’s a quota system to keep the Asian matriculants down to a reasonable level.
    Yup. No race considerations here.

  16. Richard Aubrey says:

    Some people succeed without a bump. And it’s not a matter of what I think. It’s a matter of what a good many people think, including those blacks who succeed without the bump and have to wonder if anybody presumes they got the bump.

  17. Walter E Wallis says:

    Perhaps, now that whites are becoming a minority, they will benefit from affirmative action. The ONLY way to get out of this trap is to make consideration of one’s race a criminal act, whether it is to help or hinder. Some symphony orchestras audition behind a blanket so as to eliminate visual preference from the equation. Admission and academic advancement should also be “behind a blanket”. ANY attempt to “balance the scales” or to “make up for 200 years of slavery” are doomed to failure. At the very least education dollars are wasted on unqualified folk. Perhaps we should separate universities from colleges, with universities teaching the hard stuff and colleges doing football and TGLB studies.

    • There’s no chance that AA would benefit whites… its tied to the collective “guilt” that is thrust upon our society over slavery. If other racial groups came into the majority and dominated our government, then I doubt they would even care about any racial imbalances.

      • Forget the fact that many whites have ancestors who came to this country after the Civil War and were themselves the victims of discrimination (the Irish, the Jews, the Italians, the Polish, the Russians, etc.) Slavery was evil but it’s unfair to lay that burden on all the Caucasians in this country today.

  18. Cranberry says:

    The first dozen or so posts on this topic leap to the conclusion that black graduates of top schools are stupid.

    Gee, I wonder why black graduates might hesitate to enter fields in which most people will leap to that conclusion, based only on their skin color? (cue sarcasm.)

    The anticipation of prejudice (which, to judge from this sample, would be entirely warranted), and the certainty of professional school student debt could be enough to discourage students from choosing certain careers.

    It would be interesting to compare black and white students of similar economic backgrounds, rather than rely upon interviews. It could well be more prudent for a white student from Appalachia to start teaching high school rather than enter medical school.

    • Did you read my comment? I said that one of the smartest guys I knew at college happened to be African-American. He was against affirmative action specifically because he experienced the prejudice that it created and felt that was unfair to those minority students who would’ve been admitted under race-blind admissions. I don’t think all blacks are stupid any more than I think all athletes or legacies are stupid. The dumbest person I knew at Stanford was white- the son of one of the school’s trustees. I think the only qualification he had to attend was that his father donated big bucks to the university (one of the buildings had his family’s name on it).

  19. Richard Aubrey says:

    Cranberry. Learn to read for content. It’s the coming thing.
    The question is why black grads disproportionately go into low-paying jobs in the social services industry.
    One possible reason is that those who do are AA admits, which means by definition they aren’t qualified. If they were qualified, they wouldn’t be AA admits. Hope I’m not going too fast for you.
    If they are not qualified, then they spend their college career among those who are/were, which is likely to inculcate at least a tentativeness about one’s ability to compete, if not an academic record not up to one’s peers.
    I would like to know the majors of these folks. I don’t expect somebody who majored in EE has the same likelihood to go into, say, the county social work structure as somebody who majored in, say, sociology.
    If blacks, AA or not, lean toward the social sciences, then finding them mostly avoiding STEM or business would be expected.

    For all we know, this study hasn’t corrected for majors.

    If it’s true that blacks lean toward social sciences, or any particular field, we may have both an answer–the answer to the original question–and a new question as to why the tendency to group in a particular field.

  20. Marktropolis says:

    So… if you look at the data coming from the Association of American Medical Colleges, one of the reasons they support affirmative action is because they know that their non-white students tend to take jobs in places like community health centers, inner-city hospitals, etc. Places that *need* MDs. And the math for AAMC adds up – irrespective of how you *feel* about affirmative action, if AAMC and it’s members didn’t pay attention to this, the problems we have in communities of color would be a lot worse.

    In other words, is it such a bad thing that people of color are going in to fields that serve the public interest? What a shame that smart people are choosing to go into teaching and social work. After all, we know what a great gig it is to be on Wall Street these days…

    • For both law and med school, there’s a strong, positive correlation between SAT/LSAT or MCAT/ bar passage or National Boards and specialty board certification. Those admitted to law or med schools with low test scores are significantly less likely to graduate and pass the exam(s) necessary for licensure and professional practice. Some of those doctors practicing in low-SES communities are likely to be doing so because they have no other options; hospital privileges in more advantaged areas typically require physicans to be board certified.

  21. Richard Aubrey says:


    I don’t think the issue is MDs. It’s other folks with the BA/BS going into the types of jobs in question.
    The wrong thing is not that they go into these jobs. It’s the possibility that, due to some process or other, they feel inadequate about going into other fields. Recall that most of the jobs in question are government jobs, traditionally with good benefits and job security. IOW, a place for somebody with doubts about his ability to go and cocoon.
    Nothing wrong with wanting to go into these jobs as a goal. If it’s a matter of feeling no other choice, that’s a different issue.
    BTW. What’s the benefit of misstating the question when everybody can scroll up and see what it is?

  22. I only read Joanne’s summary, so perhaps the original article addresses this – if my memory serves me well, aren’t a majority of African-American college students women? We already know that women are less likely to choose STEM careers (for whatever reasons). Social work, pre-school teacher – these are women-dominated careers.

  23. Richard Aubrey says:

    Geena. Good point. Bigger gender diff than among whites, which is big enough to have generated some AA in favor of guys, unofficially at least.
    Mich State had, many years ago, a pretty good president named Cliftion Wharton. He left to take over the NY university system, organizing and coordinating it so that each school was both improved and maintained its individuality. Got good reviews for it, although he didn’t blow his own horn.
    One thing he promised was to get more black profs in the hard sciences. Problem. Not enough hard-science PhDs among black grads and many hard science PhDs go into the private sector anyway. He was never able to make a dent in the problem.
    People make choices.
    One possibility is that AA admits have a confidence problem born of spending four or five years among a student population which is, by definition, better qualified to be there.
    It would be interesting to know if the folks mentioned in the article as underemploying themselves–by the defintion of the article’s author–were disproportionally AA admits.