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The Economics of Higher Education: Interactions Between Gender, College Major Decisions and the Labor Market


This dissertation explores topics in the economics of higher education. Its goal is to contribute to further understanding of the factors that influence students’ major decisions in college, as well as evaluate the impact of major decisions on the gender wage gap and the types of work available in the college educated labor market.

The first chapter determines the impact of labor market conditions on student majors and, therefore, the composition of the future labor market. The empirical evidence indicates that students choose higher paying majors when they graduate during times of high unemployment. Estimates suggest that students are 2.8% more likely to choose an occupation that pays twice as much in a recession when the unemployment rate is very high but only 2.6% more likely to choose the higher paying major when the unemployment rate is very low. These effects vary by sex, with women being less sensitive to different pay by major at all levels of unemployment.

The second chapter re-examines the extent to which the gender wage gap can be explained by different major decisions made by male and female graduates. Detailed major data leads to the conclusion that inequality in the distribution of majors by sex has increased in the past decade, whereas previously utilized aggregated major data misses this trend. The result is that major can help explain approximately fourteen percent of the gender wage gap, an increase in explanatory power of thirty-five percent compared to less informative data.

The third chapter explores the labor market response to the changing sex composition of potential workers. As women make up an increasing proportion of graduates in a certain field, the average preferences of that labor market may shift for both employers and employees. The result is that, over the time period studied, a ten percent increase in female graduates in a field led to a seven percent decrease in the likelihood that a woman works part-time, and an 8.2% increase in the likelihood that a male graduate does.

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