Poster Paper: Choose Wisely: The Effects of College Major Selection and Switching Behavior on Time to Degree and Probability of Graduation

Friday, November 4, 2016
Columbia Ballroom (Washington Hilton)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Cameron Wright, Pardee RAND Graduate School; RAND Corporation

Background:  A student’s choice of major field of study in college and changes in this decision may have a significant impact on the probability of graduation, time of degree completion, and, ultimately, the cost of college. At many universities, more than 50% of students change majors at least once and a large fraction of these change multiple times. Despite the high prevalence of major switching, this phenomenon has seen little systematic examination.

Objective: We examine the effect of initial college major choice and major switching behavior on the likelihood of graduation and the elapsed time from beginning college to degree.

Data: We use data from the 2004 cohort of Beginning Postsecondary Student Longitudinal Study. Participants are a nationally representative sample of approximately 19,000 students enrolling in postsecondary education for the first time. We restrict the data to those that started their studies in bachelor’s degree granting four year institutions (N=7,401).

Methods:  Generalized linear models were used to examine the relationship between the elapsed time to degree and two different independent variables: the student’s initial choice of major field of study and the number of formal changes in primary major. This analysis was limited to those that graduated with a bachelor’s degree within the six year period of observation (N=4,237). We also use logit models to examine the relationship between graduation with a bachelor’s degree and the number of formal major changes. All models include controls for a wide variety of covariates, including race, gender, ability (as measured by standardized test scores and high school GPA), and family background characteristics

Results:  Students that changed their major took significantly longer to graduate compared to those that never changed their major after initial declaration. Students that changed majors once took 2.2 months longer to graduate on average. Students with two or more major changes took 3.9 months longer compared to those that graduated and never changed majors. There were also significant differences in the time to degree between different initial major choices. Students with majors in engineering (4.2 months longer), health (2.4 months longer), and education (1.7 months longer) took a significantly longer time to graduate than those students that entered undecided.  Among all students that began in bachelor’s degree programs, those that changed their major were significantly more likely to graduate. However, among only those students that persisted in bachelor’s degree programs for at least two years, those with multiple major changes were significantly less likely to receive a bachelor’s degree.

Discussion: Major choice and major switching behavior are significant determinants in the elapsed time to degree for bachelor’s degree seeking students. Additional time enrolled in college is costly for students, both in direct costs and opportunity cost from lost time on the labor market.  In particular, students that change majors multiple times are at risk for long completion times or not graduating at all. Further research is needed on how to help students make better initial major choices and universities identify students that are at risk to make multiple major changes.