A Major Issue?

Study of GPA raises concerns among some students.
April 1, 2012

Asilent protest by around forty students on Martin Luther King Jr. Day turned a spotlight on an unpublished academic study, underscoring the delicate contours of discussions involving race at the university.

The protesting students objected to a research article titled “What Happens After Enrollment? An Analysis of the Time Path of Racial Differences in GPA and Major Choice.” The study, based on surveys with 1,500 Duke undergraduate students, found that black students, as well as children of alumni, were more likely to switch from majors in “the natural sciences, engineering, and economics to majors in the humanities and social sciences.” The authors cited the disparity as one reason why the gap between average GPAs for black and white students narrows from freshman to senior year.

Saying the paper implied that black students are more likely than white students to seek out less-challenging majors, Duke’s Black Student Alliance released a letter labeling the study “hurtful and alienating” and arguing that the study ignored “societal, complex, and institutional factors” that may influence students’ choice of major and GPA. Members of the BSA met with senior administration officials, including President Richard H. Brodhead, to discuss the study and other concerns.

The paper’s lead author, Duke economics professor Peter Arcidiacono, says the study has been misinterpreted, noting that when students’ academic preparation— based on standardized test scores, high-school grades, and parental income and education—is accounted for, no racial disparity in major-switching exists.

In a letter to the Duke community, President Brodhead acknowledged that “the conclusions of the…paper can be interpreted in ways that reinforce negative stereotypes,” that the issues raised by the students are important, and that “we share a collective commitment to finding new paths to action.”

A few students took issue with another aspect of the study: the authors’ claim that the natural sciences, engineering, and economics are more difficult and have tougher grading standards than subjects in the humanities and social sciences. As one student at the protest asked, “Where are the easy majors at Duke?”