Racial Underrepresentation in the Economics Department

Currently there is low representation of minorities within the Economics Department. As underrepresented students explore the Economic Department, many factors are working against them, and as a result, these setbacks prevent many from advancing and succeeding in Economics. For our solidarity project, we wanted to propose a supplementary learning program for students of African and Latina descent interested in pursuing economics classes, minors, and majors. Our goal in creating this program is to increase the number of  underrepresented students in economics. By implementing a supplementary learning resource for underrepresented students, an additional measure of support will be provided and students will have more opportunities to grasp concepts taught in class in an inviting space. To create a solidified proposal to the Economics Department, we gathered student responses through an extensive survey examining underrepresentation in the Economics Department, talked to the advisors of these underrepresented groups, received insights from economics professors, and brainstormed possible solutions for the issue with the heads of an on-campus supplemental resource program.

Shown below are responses that were received through a survey targeted at African American and Latina students.
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A professor in the Economics department first suggested that we follow the Pomona Scholars in Math model, where upperclassmen/women tutor students in the introductory level math courses. Faculty members would be available as an extra support system, but they would not be leading the teaching. To tackle the insecurity, self-doubt, and loneliness that many students of color feel in their economics classes, this professor suggested that we have students of color serve as the tutors. This tutoring resource would not only help boost the comprehension of the material, it would also foster relationships between economics students of color, similar to big sibling/little sibling mentorship. Along with this, he suggested that we look into creating a subcommittee within the Economics Students Association, where the group would coordinate lectures and networking events with people of color and first generation adults who have studied economics.

An additional solution that we explored was the WESI model used in the Math Department at Wellesley College. WESI was created in 2013 by Professor Chang and Professor Fernandez and serves as a supplementary learning resource for underrepresented students at Wellesley enrolled in introductory calculus courses. Gabby had previous experience as a member of the WESI program, so she spoke with Professors Chang and Fernandez to better understand the history of WESI and the process of implementing a similar program in the Economics Department.

WESI is based off of the Triesman model which aims to help underrepresented students in challenging courses exceed rather than merely avoid failure. The Triesman model replaced remedial approaches to struggling students of color with an honors program that encouraged students to work on challenging problems through strong faculty support. This can be seen in the WESI program at Wellesley, which literally stands for the Wellesley Emerging Scholars Initiative. Unlike Help Room or Supplemental Instruction, the WESI program focuses on completing practice problems related to the class material at the moment rather than merely completing problem sets.  This approach has been scientifically proven to appeal to field dependent learners, often people of color and women, since field dependent learners typically rely on structure and direction, and perform better with group work and societally relevant or personalized examples.

After our interviews and survey analysis, we were prepared to present our findings on  the retention and performance of underrepresented students enrolled in introductory economic classes, and the subsequent major numbers and performance. By demonstrating that there is a need for additional support of underrepresented students, we proposed multiple programs that could be implemented in the economics Department. In identifying the problem and providing solutions to the issue of underrepresentation in the Economics Department, we hoped to establish support systems that will provide underrepresented students of color the tools and confidence to pursue a major or minor in Economics. We believe that when underrepresented students receive adequate outreach from the Economics Department, it will encourage more majors and minors of color, ultimately increasing overall representation in the Department and making the Department a more diverse and inclusive space.

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