The blog of the Urban Institute
December 1, 2020

How Diverse Is Your Economics Department?

December 1, 2020

Over the past three years, the economics discipline has experienced public reckonings with diversity and inclusion, specifically along the lines of gender and race. As noted by the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek, racism within economics is engrained and egregious, permeating every aspect of the pipeline and pathway. A 2019 professional climate survey among economists (PDF) uncovered a 56 percentage point gap between Black and non-Black economists regarding whether an individual’s race or ethnicity was respected in the profession.

Despite recent attention paid to these issues, Black undergraduates, regardless of gender, are less likely to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in economics than white students. And two undergraduates at Stanford University found the share of Black women majoring in economics at their university declined to virtually zero over a decade. The underrepresentation of Black undergraduates is concerning because economics largely informs policies that shape Black communities.

Building on the exceptional work of economists Rhonda V. Sharpe, Omari Swinton, Amanda Bayer, and David Wilcox, I provide a snapshot of how diversity within economics departments compares with the overall demographics of different types of universities between 2010 and 2016. As the graphic illustrates, Black students are a smaller share of economics majors than of bachelor’s recipients as a whole. (In a report out today, my colleagues Tomás Monarrez and Kelia Washington find similar patterns across a number of high-growth industries.)

Black students are underrepresented in economics

Some schools do better than others. The chart below shows the representation gap at the 10 colleges with the largest economics departments. The University of Maryland, College Park, for example, has a higher share of Black students in its economics major than in the university as a whole while having higher overall shares of Black students than the other 9 largest departments. UMD also graduated more Black economics majors than any other college between 2010 and 2016.

Ten largest economics departments

When asked how UMD attracts students to the economics major, the chair of the department, Judith Hellerstein, had this to say:

“Our faculty are actively engaged in research and in policy processes in the US that are directly relevant to communities of color in the US, and bring these experiences into the classroom. [Moreover], our department’s PADE [Promoting Achievement and Diversity and Economics] program and our college’s SRI [Summer Research Institute] program provide undergraduates with opportunities that are specifically designed to help increase the presence of underrepresented groups in the economics profession.”

The PADE program provides underrepresented minorities with resources ranging from peer mentorship to exposure to PhD programs to workshops that ensure success in graduate school. In the same vein, the Summer Research Institute (SRI), which I have participated in, is a nationwide summer program for undergraduates interested in pursuing social science research at the doctoral level hosted by the Big 10 university network. Both initiatives aim to bring greater access to the economics space for underrepresented minority students, especially Black students.

As the conversations about racial justice continue, conversations within economics departments must center diversity, equity, and inclusion with a critical assessment of reality: Is there an absence of Black students within the economics major offered at my institution? If so, what role is systemic racism playing in excluding Black students? More importantly, as an academic, what role am I playing in perpetuating exclusion? You can explore the data for your school below.


Understanding the role racial inequities play in determining who enters economics and related fields is critical to knowing how and why racial identity impedes status within the profession. The discipline’s contributions to the world are too significant to be limited to only a homogenous few. That is why I cofounded the Sadie Collective, the only nonprofit organization aimed at getting more Black women into careers across economics, finance, policy, and data science. On February 19 and 20, 2021, we will be cohosting our third annual conference with the Urban Institute and honoring the 100th anniversary of America’s first Black economist, Dr. Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander.

As an emerging economist, it is my hope that visualizing how predominantly white many economics departments are, compared with overall school demographics, will be a good first step in determining actionable items for making the profession more inclusive for generations to come.

Peter Cade/Getty Images


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