college major

Heads-up: Here’s how students pick a college major

When it comes to a college major, students seek advice in a variety of areas.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” The question is common enough, but many students hesitate when it comes time to declare a college major. Some students major in a subject for which they have passion, while others choose a field of study that will yield stable job options and a steady salary.

When students DO choose a college major, most receive advice from informal sources such as family members and friends, according to Major Influence: Where Students Get Valued Advice on What to Study in College, a new study from Gallup and Strada Education Network.

The report focuses on two specific areas: the resources or people students used to get advice about the major they were going to study, and how helpful the advice was.

Postsecondary leaders, policymakers, educators and employers can help students to be better-informed when choosing a field of study by increasing their exposure to different types of information and advice, according to the report. Reworking support models could be especially helpful to the students who need it most.

(Next page: Where do students seek advice, and which advice carries more weight?)

The advice students seek seems to come from four main areas:

  • Formal sources: Counselors (high school and college) and the media (internet and print). This group represents sources that are intentionally designed to provide guidance to students about their education choices.
  • Informal social network: Family, friends and community leaders. These sources represent an informal network of advice and information for students, but are not sources specifically designed to provide guidance to students about their education decisions.
  • Informal school-based: High school teachers, high school coaches, college faculty or miscellaneous staff. The preponderance of responses classified in this category include professors, faculty or other types of instructors not primarily in an advising role.
  • Informal work-based: Employers, coworkers, people with experience in the field and military. Informal work-based sources include experiences gained while working and advice from people who work in particular fields.

The study results show that students view some sources–particularly sources encountered through work experiences or from experts–as more helpful than others. They are also less likely to regret their choices about a college major if these work-based sources played a part in their decision-making.

Older students are more likely than younger students to consult work-based sources of advice about their majors.

First-generation college students and students who are pursuing a two-year degree are less likely than others to get advice about their college major from their informal social network. A majority of education consumers with a parent who earned a bachelor’s degree (60 percent) or graduate degree (65 percent) sought advice about their major through their informal social network. By comparison, those whose parents completed a high school diploma or less are far less likely to have received advice about their college major from their informal social network (47 percent).

The study’s results have three major implications for higher education:

1. The most commonly sought forms of advice about choosing a major are not always the most helpful. Put simply, the most valued sources of advice are the least used. The report offers insights to education leaders, career counselors and employers about ways traditional models of advice and support can be retooled to help students make better-informed decisions when choosing a field of study.

2. Work-based sources include advice from experts in a field (10 percent) and workplace experiences (9 percent). Expanding students’ exposure to these types of sources through a variety of learning opportunities–vocational coursework, summer jobs programs, internships, apprenticeships or other workplace learning opportunities–could broaden students’ exposure to careers. In turn, students with an expanded awareness of career opportunities–and who are cognizant of the skills required to succeed in them–can make better decisions about their chosen course of study.

3. Increasing access to work-based experiences could be particularly beneficial for first-generation, black and Hispanic students, who may have less access to professional guidance and expertise in their social networks, but regard advice from work-based sources as especially helpful.

The report draws its information from interviews with 22,087 U.S. adults aged 18 to 65 who have either earned an associate degree, had some college education but no degree, or earned a bachelor’s degree.

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Laura Ascione