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Why Do US College Students Change Their Majors So Often?


When students choose their college majors, they are also choosing their future career trajectory. However, such an important decision can be influenced by some trivial things. For example, the class schedule of an early morning advanced courses can easily affect students' choice of majors.


A study shows that most students' reasons for choosing their majors are not really valid. Almost 2 out of every 5 college graduates have changed their majors at least once during college, either due to poor grades or because the majors they study are too competitive.


In a study on college STEM majors, these students who switched majors may have decent academic performance, but prefer to be with students of the same gender or background.


For example, at military colleges in the US, students don't have as much flexibility in course selection as regular colleges, and they are randomly assigned to some courses.


During the semester when students choose their majors, if a student is assigned to one of the 4 required courses, he is twice as likely to choose a major related to this required course than other students.


Economists came to this conclusion by analyzing data at military schools in the US from 2001 to 2015, including grades, class schedule, and students' perceptions of the curriculum.


"Things that seem unimportant can have a profound impact on major decisions in people's lives," said Nolan Pope, an economist at the University of Maryland. In many cases, students decide on a major that will affect their future life just because of one course or one professor.

Students' Tendency in Choosing Majors at West Point Military Academy


In a related paper, UCLA Business School professor Kareem Haggag said that if students took an early class at 7:30 a.m., they are about 10% less likely to choose the major that class was in.


Likewise, students who get up early for class will feel tired for the rest of the day, and they are far less likely to choose the major these later classes are in.


When students think about a math class they have taken, they confuse the impression that “the math class is tiring” with the conclusion "I don’t like math," and they mistake their state of mind during a particular class for how they really feel about a major.



Which Students Are Changing Their Majors?


Students with lower GPAs are more likely to switch majors. According to research, compared with women, men are more likely to choose to drop out of school than to change majors when they are facing high academic pressure and cannot persist.


Education and philosophy majors appear in the top five majors dropped most frequently by men, while the major with the highest dropout rate among women is computer science.


Overall, students tend to switch from highly competitive majors to not as competitive majors. According to the combined data on gender and test scores, both men and women with strong academic performance are less likely to be intimidated by competitive majors, but women with weak academic ability are more likely to be intimidated by competitive majors.


Interestingly, men with weak learning ability were less afraid of highly competitive majors than men with strong learning ability.

Most Competitive Major Rankings


The economists also compared the subject content of each major and found that lower-achieving students were more likely to switch to an unrelated major. For example, if a student has a high GPA in a science class, they may choose a challenging major that fits their interests, such as biology; but if a science class has a bad GPA, you may choose a completely unrelated major, such as Business.

Common Major Transfer Paths for Men and Women

(Male: Computer to Business, Female: Education to Psychology)


Business, economics, and many social science majors are often the first choice for students who want to change majors. Students in biology, computer science, and medicine (medical and health services) are more likely to change majors.



Why Do Students Change Their Majors?


Students who change majors are not just looking for subjects that better suit their academic strengths, they are looking for majors that are "more like themselves."


The most observable trends are women entering majors with a high proportion of female students, white students switching to majors with a high proportion of white students, black students looking for majors with a large number of black students, and so on.


"It's really interesting that this decision, which has a huge impact on their careers, depends in part on who they want to be with," economist Speer said.


About one-third of men and one-fifth of women will choose a STEM major in college, and about one-third of men and two-fifths of women will switch from a STEM major to a non-STEM major .


Women who are switching out of STEM majors are more willing to change to a major that is highly relevant to their previous major, while men are more likely to change to a major that is less relevant.

Where Do Most Former STEM Students End Up?


"On average, more women than men dislike competition, so it's not surprising that women are underrepresented in STEM professions," said researcher Astorne-Figari. "However," she added, "women who stay in majors such as engineering tend to enjoy a competitive environment."


"There are a lot of women who are very capable in math and science, and they usually go into fields that make use of science, math, but are less male-dominated," Speer said.


Benefitting from the flexible major policies at most colleges and universities in the US, when students change their mind about their majors of choice after enrolling, they can usually switch to a new major pretty easily. However, these flexible policies does not mean that students should take their major choices lightly. At institutions with highly impacted majors, switching to certain majors, such as Computer Science, can become very complicated, and in some impossible.


At Enlighteens, we are dedicated to helping our students not only through the application process, but also through the thinking process of their long term goals. We understand that for students and their families, choosing a college major is a matter of not just passion, but also commitment. For this reason, we provide our best assistance to our students both during the planning and the application process, with the bigger picture in mind.

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