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David B. Spight, The University of Texas at Austin

David Spight.jpgWith retention and graduation rates increasingly a part of the conversations on our campuses, the question as to whether an early choice of major will lead to timely graduation keeps surfacing.  At this year’s annual conference, there were even a couple of sessions that examined this question.  So, what is the answer?  Does an early declaration of major mean that a student is actually more likely to graduate “on time?” 

Decided students are commonly perceived as being more likely to progress toward graduation in a timely manner, as they are believed to be educationally driven, vocationally certain, academically successful, and likely to persist.  It is often mistakenly assumed that the decision is a fully crystallized one, and is not likely to change (Titley & Titley, 1980).  Add to that the pressures an uncertain student is under to decide early about a major or career, as parents, administrators, faculty, staff, and peers believe that the student’s decision is a reflection of an unwavering commitment to that major or career field.  Students who have not selected a major, in comparison, are usually seen by administrators, faculty and staff to be more likely to change their majors, and less likely to stay on track with progress toward timely graduation. 

What do we know already?  Every year, many students who were “decided” are changing their majors from what they initially had selected on their application for admission.  Titley and Titley (1980) estimate that about 75 percent of college freshmen have some level of uncertainty about their educational and vocational goals.  In a longitudinal study of nine cohorts at Brigham Young University (BYU), Kramer, Higley, and Olsen (1994) determined that an average of 85 percent of students changed their major at least once.  This translates into a small percentage of decided students graduating with the same major they initially declared upon their application for admission.  

When comparing the decided with the undecided, Kramer et al. (1994) concluded that students at BYU who started out undecided changed majors less frequently than their decided peers.  In every cohort, the study showed that decided students were making more changes of major than undecided students.  The percentages of total major changes ranged from a low of 13 percent fewer changes by undecided students in 1983 to a high of 38 percent fewer changes in both 1980 and 1987.  The results also determined that when undecided students chose a major to pursue, they were less likely to change majors in the future than their decided peers.  This study supports the argument that when students consciously choose to wait to make a decision, it tends to be a more appropriate and crystallized choice.

Not every decided student changes majors, but if these declared students are in fact just as uncertain as their undeclared peers, it may be important to consider that all students, or at least a large majority of students, need some level of major and career advising and assistance when they first enroll in college.  In addition, believing that one who has made a decision early made a solid well thought out decision may not be the best thing to do. Graunke, Woosley, and Helms (2006) found that “individuals who reported relatively high levels of commitment toward a specific career path were less likely to complete a degree in 6 years than were individuals who reported lower levels of commitment” (p. 17).  Additionally, there seem to be just too many variables that could affect timely graduation to suggest that the choice of major in and of itself is such a significant factor, especially given that on every campus with undecided students there are those who wait until the last possible moment to declare who still manage to graduate on time, while others who started with a major take an additional semester or even year or more to complete their degree.

Maybe we are asking the wrong question.  It seems that the real question should be how are our students making that decision about a major?  Whether the decision is made when a student applies for admission or by the end of the third or fourth semester at our institutions is less important than what information that decision was based upon.  A student who has researched and learned more about themselves – interests, values, skills, personality, beliefs, etc. – and the educational and career options that are available is one who is more likely to have made a sound decision than the one who simply picked the major because it “sounded like a good general degree to get.”

Academic advisors of all students, not just the undeclared students, have an obligation to engage in meaningful conversation with our students regarding how they made their initial decision about a particular major.  It is important, then, to assess that which is behind the decision and help the student confirm, revise, or reject that choice of major and find one that is a better fit.

David B. Spight
Assistant Dean for Academic Advising & Career Counseling
School of Undergraduate Studies
The University of Texas at Austin
dspight@austin.utexas.edu

References

Graunke, S.S., Woosley, S.A., & Helms, L.L. (2006). How do their initial goals impact students’ chances to graduate? An exploration of three types of commitment. NACADA Journal, 26(1), 13-18.

Kramer, G.L., Higley, H.B., & Olsen, D. (1994). Changes in academic major among undergraduate students. College and University, 69(2), 88-98.

Titley, R.W., & Titley, B.S. (1980). Initial choice of college major: Are only the “undecided” undecided? Journal of College Student Personnel, 21, 293-298.

 

Cite this article using APA style as: Spight, D. (2013, March). Simply declaring a major early equals timely graduation, right? Academic Advising Today, 36(1). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2013 March 36:1

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