It is well known that the field of economics has a race and gender problem, with treasury secretary (and former Fed chair) Janet Yellen, Fed chair Jerome Powell, and former Fed chair Ben Bernanke among the many senior figures advocating for change. But economics has another diversity problem that’s been largely overlooked: socioeconomic background. In new research, we find that economics is the least socioeconomically diverse of any academic discipline in the U.S.
This would be a concern in any discipline, but it is especially problematic in economics. Economists in academia and government influence policy and public debate on a huge range of issues — inequality, unemployment, inflation, access to education and health care, the welfare system, and poverty, to name but a few — many of which disproportionately affect people who are not at the higher end of the income distribution. We know that people’s backgrounds can influence their contextual knowledge of economic issues, their choice of questions to investigate, and their values. But without many economists from less socioeconomically advantaged backgrounds, what kinds of perspectives, questions, and answers are we missing?
Take, for instance, the minimum wage. Any economist can study this issue quantitatively, evaluating how the minimum wage impacts workers’ incomes and consumption in a material sense and estimating the degree to which a higher minimum wage may cause job loss. Without the lived experience of working a minimum wage job week in and week out, surviving on a minimum wage, or being unable to find a job altogether, it can be much harder to fully understand the nuances of formulating policy around quality jobs and a livable minimum wage.
Access to college is another example. If your parents both went to college or earned graduate degrees, it’s going to be harder to understand the full context of what information first-generation students have about college, how they make their educational decisions, or the barriers that face them, and therefore much harder to understand the consequences of decisions about tuition or student loan forgiveness programs.
Quantifying Economics’ Socioeconomic Diversity Problem
So, how big exactly is the socioeconomic diversity problem 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, which is a survey of all PhD recipients from U.S. universities. We found that across PhD disciplines, economics is the least socioeconomically diverse of any major academic discipline in the U.S. in terms of its share of first-generation college students.
Economics is a very international discipline, and parental education means different things about socioeconomic background in different countries. To ensure our findings weren’t just driven by a varying international student mix across subjects, we also looked at only U.S.-born PhD recipients. Among these students, economics stands out even more. It has the lowest share of PhD recipients with no parent with a college degree, and the highest share with at least one parent with a graduate degree. This means that, among U.S.-born PhDs, economics is less socioeconomically diverse than even stereotypically elite subjects like art history or classics.
To be more specific, only 14% (roughly one in six) of U.S.-born economics PhD graduates in the last decade were first-generation college graduates, compared to 26% across all PhD fields in the U.S. Further, 65% of U.S.-born economics PhD graduates in the last decade had at least one parent with a graduate degree, compared to 50% across all PhD fields in the U.S.
It’s one thing to compare economics to other academic disciplines. But if we’re interested in the degree to which economists’ experiences reflect the experiences of the general population, we should compare the backgrounds of economics PhD recipients to those of the general population. Here, the disparity is even more striking. Recent U.S.-born economics PhDs are nearly five times more likely than an average American of similar age to have a parent with a graduate degree, and only one-fifth as likely to be from a family where no parent has a college degree.
All this means that if we don’t consider socioeconomic background in our diversity efforts, we’ll miss an important axis of disadvantage and fail to bring much-needed voices to the table. For example, while men on average are overrepresented in economics, men who are first-generation college graduates are heavily underrepresented relative to the general population — and socioeconomically advantaged women are actually overrepresented. Similarly, while white and Asian people are overrepresented in economics, white and Asian first-generation college graduates are underrepresented. Without a lens on class alongside gender and race, diversity and inclusion efforts may end up favoring socioeconomically privileged white women (like me) who are already overrepresented in the discipline, perhaps at the expense of people of any race and gender from an economically disadvantaged background.
Our research also illustrates that for already underrepresented groups, an intersectional lens with social class is particularly important. Among U.S.-born economics PhDs, the share who are Black is already vanishingly small, but Black first-generation college graduates, facing a double disadvantage, are even more disproportionately underrepresented. The picture is similar for Hispanic students. And it’s likely even more true for Black female first-generation college graduates who get economics PhDs, but the numbers are too small to study — a fact that’s revealing in itself.
Diversifying the Econ Major
So, how can we fix this problem? It is first important to emphasize that the bulk of the problem lies not with economics but with academia as a whole. All academic disciplines are much less socioeconomically diverse than the general population, both at the college and particularly at the PhD level. This is a problem that requires systemic solutions across academia, including interventions to reduce the cost of access to good education; to increase available information about educational options and returns to education; and to improve support, mentorship, and inclusion for less socioeconomically advantaged students throughout their time in college or graduate school.
But there are also some aspects that seem more specific to economics. Our research shows that a large part of the socioeconomic disparity between economics and other PhD disciplines appears at the undergraduate level, with a smaller share of first-generation college students majoring in economics than in other subjects. This may be due to a lack of access or exposure to economics as a subject. Half of U.S. states do not require an economics course to graduate high school, and economics is typically a much larger and more popular major at private than at public universities.
Another possible factor is the content of introductory undergraduate economics courses. With its emphasis on production functions and indifference curves, as well as on aggregate outcomes over inequality, Economics 101 can often feel over-stylized and unrealistic, somewhat removed from the issues that may be particularly important to students from less-privileged backgrounds. Doing a better job reflecting the breadth and depth of the issues that economists actually study in introductory economics courses can help increase interest in the subject from students from less socioeconomically advantaged backgrounds.
We can also use better, more inclusive language in economics. Phrases like “low skill,” “low ability,” and “low type” are alienating and offensive. And there are a wide range of evidence-based interventions to promote inclusion by improving how we teach, as well as what we teach — like using active learning techniques and incorporating inclusive communication.
Building the PhD Pipeline
These efforts can help tackle the socioeconomic disparity between economics and other disciplines that emerges in college. But part of the gap appears somewhere between the undergraduate and PhD level. This is where consciously building the pipeline is particularly important. The path to an economics PhD is complex — arguably more complex than in many other disciplines — since a successful PhD application typically requires success in a range of advanced math courses (if not a math major) as well as research assistant experience.
Several excellent mentorship programs exist, but much more can be done to expand resources and mentorship to support budding economists from less advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, particularly at public colleges with more diverse populations and not just the top “feeder colleges” for PhD programs. Learning from other efforts to diversify the pipeline in academia, we know that expanding opportunities for feedback, mentorship, and support across the board disproportionately helps people from underrepresented groups, whether that is defined by socioeconomic background, race, or gender.
Part of this effort is structural. But in a profession where individual relationships can change the trajectory of someone’s career, change also requires individuals in the profession to reflect on — and adapt — our own behavior. Professors need to consider how we offer our time and support to students, and to understand that students with less family experience in higher education may be more reluctant to initiate relationships with faculty, may be less aware of the path to their career goals or what to ask for (whether that’s advice, support, research assistant positions, or recommendation letters), and may have less prior experience with some of the skills they’ll need to build to be successful. This means that faculty need to be particularly proactive in offering intensive support to students from less socioeconomically advantaged backgrounds throughout their academic and professional journey to becoming economists.
Finally, we need to better understand the problem before we can fully solve it. There has been a much-needed proliferation in recent years of surveys and studies on gender and race in economics, as well as rigorous evaluations of programs to improve the situation. But there has been much less work focused on socioeconomic background. We need more data and more attention on the topic to get a deeper understanding of why this problem exists in economics and to learn how best to solve it.
We are making long overdue strides in addressing diversity issues with race and gender in economics. Now it is time to include socioeconomic background as well.