Diversifying the Economists
Pipeline program hopes exposure to economics will help boost the abysmally low numbers of minority faculty in the discipline.By Ronald Roach
With a flair for math, Janelle Jones won a NASA scholarship to Spelman College. Though the Lorain, Ohio native had initial expectations of becoming a mathematician, Jones later found that studying economics proved a more compelling intellectual pursuit. Graduating this past spring from the historically Black women’s college in Atlanta, Jones completed a bachelor’s degree in math with a minor in economics. She plans to enroll at The Ohio State University this fall to pursue a doctorate in economics.
“Mathematics is pretty abstract and doesn’t always apply to the real world. I like economics because I can apply it to social problems,” Jones says.
This summer, Jones is proving she has the mental discipline and talent, reinforced by her math background, to master graduate-level courses in economics. She is one of 45 students enrolled in the American Economists Association’s summer and minority scholarship program at Duke University. An academic pipeline program that’s been in operation for 33 years, the eight-week summer experience prepares its participants for the rigors of first- and second-year study in master’s and doctorate programs in economics.
The program also plays host to the AEA’s annual pipeline conference. Held in July, the conference brings together current and former program participants, professional economists who volunteer as mentors and graduate economics students who present research papers. According to Dr. William Rogers, director of the pipeline conference project, approximately 100 people are expected to attend the 2006 conference.
“The conference, along with the summer program, serves to demystify for the students what academic economists do,” he says.
It is estimated that 841 students have participated in the summer program, which migrates to a new campus home every few years. While few student tracking records exist from the early years of the program, Dr. Charles M. Becker, director of the AEA summer program, says out of the 133 students that have been participants between 2001 and 2005, 61 will have entered Ph.D. programs as of fall 2006. An additional 17 students in the 2001 to 2005 cohort are expected to eventually enter Ph.D. programs, he adds. Since 2001, Becker has directed the program and he presided over its move from the University of Colorado at Denver to Duke during the fall of 2003. North Carolina A&T State University is a partner institution in the program as well.
While the summer program and pipeline conference are open to students of all races and ethnicities, the combined AEA efforts have been and remain the only pipeline development program for under-represented minorities chasing a doctorate in economics. Supporters of the organizations say that the summer program and conference effectively helps students navigate the transition from undergraduate to graduate school. But they point out that such a pipeline is still necessary because economics, at least in comparison to other social sciences, remains the least inclusive of Blacks, Hispanics and American Indians.
Over the past year, published reports focused on Black representation have pointed out that economics departments at U.S. colleges and universities have embarrassingly low numbers of Blacks employed as full-time professors. Research by Jackson State University economist Dr. Gregory Price revealed earlier this year that out of the 2,785 faculty at the 106 doctoral-granting economics departments, only 40, or 1.4 percent, are Black. In seven Southern states, 11 schools that have doctoral-granting economics departments, including the University of Virginia and the University of Georgia, have never hired a Black economics faculty member, according to Price.
“I think it’s true that top institutions are not hiring minorities in the way you would expect them to,” Becker contends.
“[The economics profession] has a big problem in relation to where it is to the other social sciences,” says Dr. William Spriggs, the chair of Howard University’s economics department.
“I should be fair to say that the AEA spends money to change the problem. And they draw a huge amount of input from Black economists,” he says.
ENRICHING EXPERIENCES Over the years, AEA officials have recruited at minority-serving institutions and have relied upon a national network of academic economists to identify undergraduates with promise interested in economics. Some students who gain admission to the summer program may have recently been admitted to a master’s or Ph.D. program or are considering graduate school while working full-time.
The summer experience offers courses in microeconomics, game theory, econometrics and mathematics taught by faculty members from Duke University and other schools. Students are also required to participate in a research seminar, which has them working in teams to conduct research as they would in graduate school.
“We’ve been able to improve and grow the summer program. Duke has really stepped up with resources and made it possible for us to hire an associate director,” Becker says.
Since 2004, one of the newer summer activities has been a trip to Washington, D.C. This year’s trip took place in June and included visits to the Federal Reserve Board, the World Bank, the national Council of Economics Advisers, the Cato Institute, Howard University and the RAND Institute, among others. The trip exposes the students to institutions and agencies that provide professional opportunities to economists outside the classroom, says Dr. Rhonda V. Sharpe, the associate director of the program.
“It was the first time I’ve visited Washington. It was a good experience for me because I got to see what working in the nation’s capital might be like,” says Norma Padron, a rising senior economics major at the University of Texas-Pan American.
Padron, a Mexican-American from south Texas, plans to apply to a Ph.D. program in economics when she returns to her campus this fall. She says the program has helped her gain additional confidence in her academic abilities.
“It’s really been quite demanding, but the teachers here have been quite supportive,” Padron says.
Rodney Andrews says participating in the summer program in 1999 and attending pipeline conferences has benefited him as an economics doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan. Expected to complete his degree by the end of the year, Andrews credits the mentoring he got from professors at the Georgia Institute of Technology and professors affiliated with the AEA programs for having inspired and encouraged him during graduate school. Like Padron, Andrews credits the summer experience with giving him confidence that he could achieve academically at the graduate level.
“The first two years of graduate school are very rigorous,” Andrews says. “I fortunately was put in contact with someone at Michigan who became a mentor even before I got to graduate school.”
AEA program officials stress rigorous coursework because they say the instructional rigor in undergraduate programs is inconsistent. Some economics programs, they allege, don’t steer their students to the mathematics and statistics courses that are essential for success at the graduate level.
“There’s a big disconnect between undergraduate and graduate economics programs. It’s typical that 10 percent or less of a program’s undergraduate majors will go on to graduate study, so what you find is those who do end up needing to take courses in the math department to get prepared,” says Dr. Gary A. Hoover, an associate professor of economics at the University of Alabama and a 1992 AEA summer program alumnus.
Dr. Vicki Bogan, an assistant professor of economics at Cornell University, says she treasured her program experience in 1998 and the pipeline conferences she attended afterwards. It was there that she met two veteran African-American economists, Dr. William Darity of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and Dr. Cecilia Conrad of Pomona College, who she now considers her mentors.
In 2004, Bogan completed her doctorate in economics at Brown University, becoming the first Black woman to do so at the Ivy League university. She specializes in financial economics, making her one of the few women of color to conduct research in that area.
“Mentors help you steer clear of the common landmines. They help increase the probability of your success,” she says.
DEBATING DISCRIMINATION, THE PIPELINE AND AWARENESSResearch by economists, such as Price, has generated considerable debate about whether discrimination is a factor in the abysmally low numbers of Black faculty members, especially in the South. “There … exists what can be characterized as ‘vulgar’ demographic disparities if we consider the representation of Black economics faculty at Ph.D.-granting economics departments in states with large Black populations,” contends Price in his paper, “The Problem of the 21st Century: Economics Faculty and the Color Line.”
While some senior economists see the hiring patterns of top institutions as problematic, they also pay close attention to the factors that have produced low overall numbers of minorities in the economics profession. Howard University’s Spriggs says it’s helpful to consider the relationship between the economic and social struggles in Black, Hispanic and American Indian communities and their representation in economic programs. He contends that awareness is lacking in many minority communities about the impact economists can have in public policy planning and decision-making.
“The big challenge for Black folks is to understand what economists do,” Spriggs says.
Diversity is critical in the academic and policy arenas because that is where the decisions are made about who gets into graduate school, what gets studied and analyzed and who gets resources, he adds.
Spriggs also notes that while historically Black colleges and universities generally produce significant numbers of graduate students, that trend often doesn’t extend to economics. He says that because of departmental closings and other reasons, most HBCUs don’t offer economics as an undergraduate major.
Even at institutions where economics is offered as a major, experts say many under-represented students aren’t showing significant interest in pursuing graduate-level study in this discipline. “We don’t get a lot of students who want to go to graduate school because they can go into well-paying jobs after earning their bachelor’s,” Spriggs says of Howard’s undergraduate economics program.
Spriggs wants to see more Black, Hispanic and American Indian economists take on public roles so they can focus on speaking to and interacting with communities of color. For example, he says only a few of the senior Black economists have done much to bring themselves to the attention of average citizens. “Andy Brimmer and Julianne Malveaux have clearly put themselves in position to be seen as economists,” Spriggs says.
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