Switching majors might actually be a good idea

'The act of major switching itself is a positive indicator of engagement'

Students who finalize their major later in college are actually more likely to graduate than those who settle on a major right away, according to a new study from EAB.

And contrary to common perception, students who switch majors typically do not extend their time to degree or decrease their likelihood of completion.

EAB used data from the Student Success Collaborative platform to determine the relationship between when students make a final declaration of their major and graduation rates. Researchers analyzed outcomes of more than 78,000 students from 10 public and private institutions. The study focused on when students decided on a final major—not necessarily the first time they declared a course of study, because some students changed their major later.

“This research started from an conversation we had at EAB about when schools should be requiring students to declare a major," says EAB Senior Director Ed Venit. "We quickly realized that we might be asking the wrong question. Since the vast majority of students switch majors, shouldn’t we be more focused on their last choice rather than their first?"

The study found that settling on a final major between the second and eighth terms of enrollment did not lower students' graduation rates, with those choosing new major during that time frame posting graduation rates between 82% and 84%. One-quarter of students who decided on a final major during their senior year still graduated within four years.

Meanwhile, students who declared a major early on and stuck with it had slightly lower graduation rates than those who finalized the course of study later. Students who finalized in the first semester of college were 4% less likely to graduate than those who finalized major during their second semester or later.

Venit believes that the gap could be attributed to students who enroll in pre-professional programs such as law or medicine but are not admitted and drop out. Students who finalize their majors upfront may also feel obligated to keep going on path they have declared, Venit says.

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"They're pursuing it, and they don't necessarily feel that they're in love with it, but they're also not sure if they can leave it," he says. "They're just making a choice to continue on."

But students who change majors may be more in touch with their interests and committed to finding the best match.

"The act of major switching itself is a positive indicator of engagement," Venit says.

Georgia State University (GSU) has succeeded in keeping students engaged on the path to timely graduation with meta-majors, or groups of courses within a general field of study. The structured pathway has been especially useful for helping first-generation and low-income students navigate higher education.

"It was overwhelming, especially for first-generation, low-income students… to try to wade through these choices and options. In most cases students were making the wrong choices," says Timothy Renick, vice provost and vice president for enrollment management and student success.

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Now students have their choice of seven meta-majors that allow them to switch from one discipline to another while holding on to previously earned credits that can be applied to another degree. Students narrow down to one specific major after they've completed some work in the overarching meta-major, at which point, they will typically have a better idea of what they want to study.

In the past three academic years since it has offered meta-majors, GSU has actually had a 32% decrease in the number of major changes among undergraduate students. And students who graduated this past spring took an average about half of a semester less to complete their degree requirements than those who graduated in 2013.

"There's no value to try to force a student's hand as they enter the university," Renick says. "An ill-informed choice is worse than no choice at all" (Straumsheim, Inside Higher Ed, 8/24).

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