3 ways 'dumb luck' influences how students choose their majors

Choosing a major can feel like a high-pressure decision. But most students make their choice based on arbitrary factors, such as the time of day they took a class or the classes they happened to be taking when it came time to declare a major.

It's therefore no surprise that 37% of students end up switching majors, according to a paper from University of Memphis Economists Carmen Astorne-Figari and Jamin Speer.

In an article for the Washington Post, Andrew Van Dam points to several studies to suggest that students tend to make uninformed decisions when declaring their majors. Here's what drives students to pick their degree paths:

Reason #1: Which classes students are taking at the time they declare

Van Dam points to a recent study conducted by economists at the U.S. Military Academy to suggest that students often choose their majors based on which classes they happen to be taking when the deadline for declaring a major arrives.

At the U.S. Military Academy, students are randomly assigned schedules and classes, allowing the economists to examine whether students choose their majors based on "dumb luck." The researchers found that students who happened to be assigned a course in one of four core subjects at the time they were supposed to declare their majors were twice as likely to major in that subject.

And this finding was consistent regardless of how well students did in the course or how much they enjoyed it, according to an analysis of class data from 2001 to 2015. "Small and seemingly unimportant things can really have a large impact on people's life decisions," notes University of Maryland Economist Nolan Pope, one of the authors of the study.

Reason #2: What time of day students take a class

Similarly, students are swayed by the time of day they take certain classes, according to a related paper. For instance, students are about 10% less likely to major in a subject if they took the class at 7:30 A.M. They're also less likely to major in subjects when they take classes later in the day and grow more and more fatigued, the paper suggests.

"You think back on that class that you took in math, and you're confusing the fact that you were tired while taking the class with that you didn't like math," says Pope, who co-authored the paper. "You're confusing the state you were in with the quality of the major."

Also see: 3 myths you might believe about how students choose majors

Reason #3: Whether students feel comfortable socially

While students tend to choose their majors initially by "accidents of timing and environment," they tend to switch majors based on social factors, writes Van Dam. In other words, students tend to gravitate toward majors where the majority of students look like them, according to Astorne-Figari and Speer. For instance, women tend to leave competitive, male-dominated majors for female-dominated majors.

"When they talked about leaving majors, they talked about the people as much as they did the academics," says Speer. "That's really interesting to me that people would make this decision that has huge implications for their career based partially on who they would want to be around," he adds.

But students also leave majors for academic purposes, note Astorne-Figari and Speer. For instance, both men and women are more likely to abandon majors in the sciences for less competitive majors, such as those in business or the social sciences. Students with low GPAs are also more likely to switch to less competitive majors.

Help students make informed decisions

Colleges and universities can help students make an informed decision—and develop a strong sense of purpose—if they offer students opportunities to explore their academic and career interests early on, according to a report from Complete College America (CCA).

For instance, Indiana University - Purdue University Indianapolis' (IUPUI) cluster advising model supports first-year students with academic and career resources aligned to their major. Under the model, IUPUI groups first-year students with similar interests into small groups. Each group is assigned student success advisors who have specialized knowledge about the academic programs and related careers. These advisors work closely with career consultants to help students choose a major and career that interests them (Van Dam, Washington Post, 3/29).


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