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Changing Majors

by Tod Massa 9. December 2017 00:41

This article caught my eye at InsideHigherEd.

Almost a third of first-time college students choose a major and then change it at least once within three years, and students who started out in mathematics and the natural sciences are likelier than others to switch fields, federal data released Thursday show.

We looked briefly at this topic years ago and found a similar number. Tonight, I decided to look at last year's graduates with a four-year bachelor's degree, which is really the opposite case. Pulling the first major for every student at the level for the last six years from the Course Enrollment file results in about 45% of graduates having changed major at least once. This is a very rough count where I have excluded the obvious undeclared majors, but there still may be others I need to look for since I just did it off the top of my head.

If I take just the last three years, the percentage drops to about 27%.

Just looking at the last two years of enrollment prior to graduation, it looks to be less than 8% of graduates change major.

As rough as a cut of the numbers as this is, I think it feels right. When I was at Willamette University, prior to coming to SCHEV, the policy was that a student could not a pick a major until after completing three semesters. This required students to engage with and explore the general education/core requirements first, perhaps allowing them to make a more informed choice of major. It seemed to work at that institution.

I did not look too closely at the majors with the greatest change. I think I need to spend some time thinking about how to best look at that. If I look at just changes within the CIP family, Math majors seem to be in the middle of the pack.

The big caveat, is that I looked at all graduates for the BA/BS, first-time in college and transfer, so that places yet another spin, since the article is about major changes within the first three years of enrollment. If I had found that average number of majors for graduates was very close to 1.0, I might be concerned with a large percentage of students changing majors. However, the average was 1.65, which corresponds to the idea that about 45% of graduates had changed majors at least once.

I suspect we'll do some further study on this as time allows. It may show up as an artifact in an upcoming report on degree awards.




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