Why Do Students Change Their Majors, and Are They Right for Doing It?
Large swaths of students change their majors and their reasons for doing so are variable, but many are rooted in one theme (Image via Fortune)

Nearly a third of first-year college students choose a major and then change it at least once within a three-year time period. More specifically, federal data shows students who choose a major pertaining to math and science are more likely to switch fields than those in other fields of study.

The Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics shows, citing results from a postsecondary-students longitudinal study, that those who entered college in 2011-12 and 28 percent of students earning an associate degree changed their major at least once by 2014. Nearly one in 10 changed their college majors twice. In addition, those who study in college majors such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics are more likely to switch majors than those in non-STEM related college majors.

According to the study, math majors switch more than any other, as 52 percent of those who initially declared math as their major ended up majoring in something different. Forty percent of those in natural sciences, 37 percent in education, 36 percent in humanities disciplines and 32 percent in engineering and general studies have all switched to a different major.

STEM majors seem to be abandoning their college majors at a much greater rate than other students, which raises concerns because there is a high demand in the marketplace for STEM-related fields. Ed Venit, the managing director of the student success collaborative at the Education Advisory Board (EAB), published a study in 2016 that showed that students who changed majors graduate at a higher rate than those who don’t. The study found that many students who plan to major in rigorous fields, such as math, because they excelled at it in high school often find themselves in over their head in the college-level classes.

According to Venit, EAB researchers have found that students generally move from specialized fields like math into more catchall fields, such as business and psychology. Venit says that given employers’ strong demand for math majors, and by extension the desire among students to pursue such majors, it is essential that educators seek ways to make those fields less off-putting to students.

He says the rigor of math and other fields should not be reduced, but it does make sense to redesign the classes and improve the nature of instruction. Venit believes colleges and universities should also strive to help direct students whose academic skills have fallen short and have waylaid them from their original academic goal.

Executive director of the Mathematical Association of America Michael Pearson acknowledges that math has sometimes been seen as a barrier to postsecondary success and that math educators have been striving to improve instruction and the perceived relevance of the discipline.

However, he also noted that enrollments in math courses at all levels of education are up about 20 percent in the last six years, and said that the interest in graduates with strong quantitative skills was strengthening the pervasiveness of mathematics. Pearson believes that a large portion of students leaving STEM-related fields for other college majors may be doing so because they are exposed to new areas of study, such as engineering, that don’t have nearly as much visibility in high school. He thinks these students may be choosing to use their math skills in new ways.

Statistics can show a lot, but every student has a different experience and reason for why they decide to change their college major. I spoke with three undergraduates who shared their stories as to why they decided to make the change, how they transitioned into it and how it affected them in the long run.

Grace John, a senior at Rutgers University, says she started off as a biology major. She chose the field because science seemed like the practical route to take, in addition to the pressure she faced from her mother, who used to be a math teacher and is now working in a hospital.

During her first year of college, John completely tanked most of her classes because she didn’t know what was going on in the classes and didn’t enjoy them. She tried to switch to something a little easier for her, but still in the sciences. She looked into food science for a semester and says she did slightly better in class. However, she still failed biology, and said she had a real epiphany.

“I’ve always been interested in literature,” John says. “The reading, the writing and all that jazz, but never dared to bring up the idea of majoring in English for fear of what my mother would say. Not to mention the stigma surrounding English majors not being able to get a job after college.

“However, after that year of mess-ups, my academic career dangling by a thread, I took the plunge. After a very long and emotional talk with my mom, I finally switched my major to English. My interest in school piqued instantly, my GPA went up and I was so so much happier. My mom is still getting around to me being in a completely different field than she’s used to, but she’s much more accepting which is all I could ask for.”

Amber Lockridge, an undergraduate from Middle Tennessee State University, graduated with a degree in multimedia journalism. However, after walking the stage, she didn’t want to work in a field related to news and found a career in property management. She says her degree helped her transition well into her job, despite the fact that the connection isn’t immediately apparent.

Lockridge started off in college wanting to be a teacher and took a few classes to see if she would enjoy it. Later, she decided teaching wasn’t for her so she switched to marketing. She enjoyed the subject, but wasn’t really in love with the major. She wanted to find that perfect fit, so, finally, she switched to journalism.

“I met and really embraced the department,” Lockridge says. “I used everything they had to offer to my advantage, and I learned so much more than just journalism. Now, do I write print articles, put together a script or shoot video all day? Absolutely not, but I use every piece of communication knowledge they teach us in class on a regular basis.”

Kesharra Ambrose, a senior at Middle Tennessee State University, started off as a computer science major. She decided to change simply because she was unhappy with the major. Ambrose says because computer science consisted of a lot of coding, it wasn’t very people oriented. She knew she was going to be working with those well acquainted in computer coding, but discovered that her life couldn’t be all about that.

Ambrose soon realized that she didn’t mesh well with the program. Her grades were slipping and it was hard to network with people because of the extremely introverted nature of pretty much all of the students.

“The classes were boring to me and really hard,” Ambrose says. “I just didn’t see myself being happy in computer science. I knew I wanted to change it, but I didn’t want to make a jump to something completely unrelated to computer science. So, I looked at what all tech related majors MTSU offered and found information systems. It was the best decision I could have made for myself.”

There does not seem to be one definitive answer as to why students make the decision to change their college majors. Some do it in order to gain a better opportunity for job employment in the future. Others do it because of a dissatisfaction of some sort, whether it’s the teachers, the coursework or the major itself.

It should be noted that most students don’t switch majors out of animosity for the major itself. A majority of the time, students enjoy the subject, but not the perquisites that come along with it. Changing majors isn’t a bad thing though, a students who decide to make this change often benefit from it in the long run.

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