Changing majors throughout college is incredibly common. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), “within 3 years of initial enrollment, about 30 percent of undergraduates in associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs who had declared a major had changed their major at least once.” This means that approximately one-third of all college students changed course during their academic careers. Furthermore, the NCES found that “about 1 in 10 students changed majors more than once.” This figure represents significant stress and chaos for these undergraduates.
Many approach changing majors as an inevitable part of the college experience, as students sample courses and determine the route they’d like to take. Of course, some students may legitimately need to adjust their academic programs throughout their time in school. However, having a significant proportion of your student body switching majors simply isn’t good for your school. It puts unnecessary strain on your students, faculty, and administrators, especially since it’s such a fixable problem. Read on to learn why changing majors needs to change.
Changing Majors Could Reduce Graduation Rates
The Complete College America initiative reports that a meager “5% of students complete their associate degree within 2 years,” and just “19% of students complete their bachelor’s degree within 4 years.” The goal of higher education is to get students successfully through their studies in the expected timeframe, so that they can then go on to pursue their goals. If over 80% of bachelor’s degree-seekers are taking over 4 years to finally finish their degrees, something isn’t right.
While many factors affect the time it takes to finish a degree, changing majors could certainly have a major impact. If a student begins as a biology major, but then decides in her junior year that she’d rather study literature, it will be very difficult for her to meet all the English degree requirements in time. If this student is one of the 10% that decide to change majors twice or more, it could take even more time for her to graduate. As a 2012 study from Western Kentucky University found, “major changing activity after the second year correlated with modestly lower grades, lower graduation rates, and longer times-to-graduate.” If you want more of your students to graduate on time, you might start by finding ways to keep them from changing majors as often.
It’s a Course Credit Catastrophe
As we mentioned above, students who change majors may need to scramble to catch up on the required courses for their new area of study. This means it’s likely they’ll take more credits than they (and the school) had planned. According to the Hechinger Report’s citation of Complete College America, “bachelor’s degree recipients take and pay for 15 credits, on average – an entire semester – more than they need.” This can make classrooms more crowded and lead to more desperate meetings with academic advisors as students grapple with their new majors.
In addition, as Complete College America points out, students who aren’t sure about their majors might “[delay] important gateway courses,” and “begin their college career by taking too few credits,” forcing them to cram too many credits into their last two years, once they’ve finally chosen a major.
In sum, higher educational institutions typically have clear, organized plans about the number and arrangement of credits students need to take in order to graduate on time and fulfill their major requirements. Changing majors can upset this delicate system, making administrative planning and academic advising more difficult (as well as stressing out students).
Changing Majors is Costly
Forbes recently reported that “student loan debt in 2019 is the highest ever…there are more than 44 million borrowers who collectively owe $1.5 trillion in student loan debt in the U.S. alone.” The fact that about one-third of college students are changing their majors contributes to the mounting issue of student loan debt in several ways.
First of all, students who change majors often have to take more credits. Depending on how an institution prices courses, this could add up to more money spent. In addition, every additional semester or school can be costly, not just in terms of academic expenses, but rent, lost work time, childcare, and numerous other costs. In this way, changing majors could lead students to rack up even more student loan debt. This means larger loans to pay off, as well as more interest, longer terms, and worse future credit.
Furthermore, changing majors is symptomatic of a larger problem for students. Undergraduates who decide to switch their course of study are likely to be very unclear about their vocational goals. They might have a harder time planning for their professional futures, getting relevant internships, and generally understanding how their studies will apply to their careers.
In this way, students who change their majors may fall into the 65% of college graduates that don’t “jump right into their career after college,” according to Harvard Business Review. The longer students take to get started in their chosen professions, the longer it takes them to earn the advancements, promotions, and pay bumps that would allow them to more easily pay off their loans. Even worse, students who change majors may be less likely to graduate at all, which would make it even more difficult to repay student loans.
In sum, changing majors can both increase the cost of college for undergraduates and make it more difficult for them to get fulfilling, well-paid jobs that would allow them to pay off their student loan debts.
How to Resolve the Situation
We’ve established that changing majors needs to change, but how can you discourage students from switching majors and help them stay on track? We have a couple suggestions:
- Create a clear academic and career plan starting in the first year. We recommend making career counseling mandatory and integrating it with academic advising. That way, students can choose their majors with their vocational futures in mind.
- Urge students to enroll in the appropriate number of credits each semester, especially in freshman and sophomore year. Complete College America suggests that counselors “boost the number of students who are on track for on-time graduation by encouraging enrollment in 15 credits each semester.” In deciding how to use these credits, advise your students to prioritize general education courses that will serve any major they choose, until the firmly select one.