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Scholar spotlight: Peter Arcidiacono

The roots of self-sorting in college

October 5, 2022


Lisa Camner McKay Writer/Analyst, Institute
Collage with Peter Arcidiacono photo
PETER ARCIDIACONO, William Henry Glasson Distinguished Professor of Economics, Duke University
Scholar spotlight: Peter Arcidiacono

The research community at the Institute includes visiting scholars, consultants, economists, research analysts, and research assistants. These scholars bring a diversity of backgrounds, interests, and expertise to research that deepens our understanding of economic opportunity and inclusion as well as policies that work to improve both.

Peter Arcidiacono has published more than 40 articles in economics journals—and about half have been about education. He first discovered economics in college, a setting that has retained his fascination.

“I think a lot about how individuals sort within schools, into majors for instance,” said Arcidiacono, an Institute visiting scholar.

“It’s not clear to me why we should have such different grades across fields, especially when we’re incentivizing people to go into lower-paying fields by offering them higher grades.”
—Peter Arcidiacono

That sorting process has significant economic consequences for students because majoring in STEM fields and economics leads to higher-paying occupations, on average, than majoring in other disciplines. This fact, in turn, has consequences for income inequality because female, Black, and Hispanic students continue to be underrepresented in many STEM majors and economics. Arcidiacono’s research seeks to better understand the factors at both the individual and university level that contribute to this sorting. This knowledge can then be used to craft policies that improve representation.

Take grading, for instance. STEM fields typically give lower grades than other disciplines. That turns out to be a deterrent for some women, who enter college just as well prepared but who on average care more about their grades than men, Arcidiacono’s research suggests.

And while it’s not exactly a state secret that chemistry grades on a different curve than art history, it’s also not knowledge all first-year students have. “It’s not clear to me why we should have such different grades across fields,” Arcidiacono said, “especially when we’re incentivizing people to go into lower-paying fields by offering them higher grades.” Standardizing grading across disciplines could increase total participation in STEM and decrease the gender gap.

Arcidiacono’s next project picks up another component of higher ed sorting: the decision-making processes universities use to admit students. Arcidiacono says recent momentum to drop the use of standardized test scores—on the logic that they are correlated with income—actually works against equity. That’s because other admissions criteria universities use tend to be even more correlated with income.

Even if universities choose not to place weight on test scores, Arcidiacono believes the data has value. How admissions decisions are made, the grading criteria in each discipline, the likelihood that a student with a certain portfolio of grades and test scores will succeed in a certain major—all of this is information a university could share with students to help them make their best choices.

If universities are uncomfortable with what that data reveals, Arcidiacono suggests, the solution is for them to invest the resources to change those patterns.

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Lisa Camner McKay
Writer/Analyst, Institute

Lisa Camner McKay is a writer/analyst with the Opportunity & Inclusive Growth Institute at the Minneapolis Fed. In this role, she creates content for diverse audiences in support of the Institute’s policy and research work.