Major Changers are students who declare a major during their freshman year, complete their coursework, and then decide to change to a different major. Students make this change for a number of reasons, however, they fundamentally make the shift when they are unhappy with their field of study.
Changing majors comes at a cost.
Students who change their majors far into their academic career face paying more tuition (leading to larger student loan debts), pushing back their graduation date, or feeling like they lost valuable time pursuing something they weren’t truly interested in. A 2017 US Department of Education study showed that one-third of freshmen chose a major then changed it at least once within three years. The disciplines in which students change their majors is an important factor. About 35% of students who originally declared a STEM major changed their field of study within three years. Moreover, for original mathematics majors, that number is at a high 52% (DOE, 2017).
Which majors are more likely to change their field of study?
There is growing evidence that math and natural science majors are more likely to change their field of study. Given the market demand for math majors in the workforce, this trend in “Change Majors” has been puzzling. Those in the education field have multiple explanations for math major shifts. Michael Pearson, executive director of the Mathematical Association of America, attributed these decisions to less about math as a discipline and more about newly exposed fields that are not visible to students until they reach college. Other educators point to high school math and students just not feeling prepared for their studies and ultimately becoming overwhelmed by it once in college.
There are a growing number of students shifting to fields related to math that students are not exposed to in high school, such as engineering or computer information systems (DOE, 2017).
What does this mean for the future workforce? How do we make sense of this trend?
Pearson’s, and other educator’s reasons for Major Changers are likely true. Math is a demanding discipline that becomes more demanding in college coupled with students finding new ways to use their quantitative skills.
Colleges and universities can create new programs that reflect scientific, cultural, and social happenings in the world of work. As the workforce demands more expansive quantitative skills, it makes sense that most students do not see these opportunities until college. Solutions to these trends are to expose students to these opportunities long before they get to college. Educating students about the current and growing workforce marketplace may help them choose a field of study based on their interest and knowledge of vast discipline tangents. For instance, a student interested in math and computers can pursue computer engineering and coding rather than choosing a singular path of mathematics.
One solution is to track students who have the potential to get derailed from their original academic commitments. This would support exploratory tracks without weighing students down with more tuition or prolonged graduation. However, exploratory tracks cannot just start in college or university, rather they should start in K-12 where students can learn about the workforce as it is evolving. Majors are a reflection of the workforce as it is a continuum of skills, interests, and values.
Time for a game changer.
As it stands from these trends, students are making decisions based on a narrow understanding of intersectional fields. Early educators need to encourage this continuum in each student so that when they are deciding which disciplines to study, they will make informed decisions based on the evolving world of work. The early exploration work that Ed Hidalgo at Cajon Valley USD has been doing with thousands of students should be an indicator that exposing students early on can help with getting them on the right track once they are ready for college. Watch Ed’s inspiring story: New Frontiers for the Strong: A Personal Journey of Student Impact
U.S. Department of Education, December 2017, Data Point-Beginning College Students Who Change Their Majors Within 3 Years of Enrollment (NCES 2018-434), https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2018/2018434.pdf