Why a Quick Major Decision Isn’t Such a Major Decision

Posted By Eliana Osborn on September 9, 2016 at 10:38 am
Why a Quick Major Decision Isn’t Such a Major Decision

Conventional wisdom holds that students who frequently change majors fear going out into the real world. They’re just delaying graduation, racking up credits, yes, but also seemingly endless debt. Good students, the story goes, know what they want to study and stick to their major decision. EAB, the Educational Advisory Board, looked at a wide range of schools to find out if these assumptions about major decisions and switching students are true. It’s report, How Late Is Too Late, is the response to that “wisdom.”

Looking at 78,000 students at 10 different-sized schools across the country, the report, led by author Ed Venit, found common myths about major switchers don’t hold up. For purposes of the major decision study, switching students are those who change their declared majors after earning 60 credits, generally at the end of the sophomore year.

Before that point, many students start and quit college or cycle through possible majors. Also, the research only looked at the final time a student changes a major – his or her final selection. How a person gets to that point isn’t as important as when he or she gets there.

Major decision and graduation rates

The average graduation rate for students who don’t change majors after 60 credits is about 78%. For those who switch any time from semester 2 until semester 10, the graduation rate is more than 80%. Students who switch majors during a typical junior year have the highest graduation rate, 84%. Disclaimer: None of these variations are enough to be statistically significant, the researchers say. “It could be that the act of switching is not indicative of indecision but is actually an affirmation of a commitment to earn a degree. By going through the trouble to change their official major, students are making a statement that they intend to continue their education,” the study says. These students are being actively engaged in the process, not just going along with things. Changing a major in a process requiring paperwork and advisement meetings; those who do this are making a statement that they have some sort of vision for their post-college life.

Students who select their final major during their first semester of college have lower graduation rates overall, a full 4% lower than those who changed their mind at least a semester later, the study reveals

Time to degree

A major in English and a major in biology necessitate different classes. But the research found that switching course of study, right up until the start of the junior year of college, does not add time to a student’s education.

Students who select their final major during semester 2, 3, 4 or 5 are still on track for a median completion rate of 8 semesters—the four year track that most hope for. Even 25% of switchers in semester 6 or 7 are able to graduate on time, perhaps because they are not making dramatic changes in area of focus.

Completing college in eight semesters isn’t just timely, it also reduces the cost of a degree dramatically. Bob Lenz, executive director of the Buck Institute for Education, says that students should choose a major based on what they are interested in, even though only 27% will go on to a job in that field.

Getting through college is easier when students are studying something they care about; changing majors does not necessarily mean throwing away the progress they’ve made. EAB’s research can give some peace of mind to students who haven’t made just the right major decision quite yet.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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