What Statistics from the U.S. Department of Education Tell Us about Changing College Majors

Did you change college majors when you were a student? Or if you are a student now, are you thinking about changing . . . or are you worried about changing?

In some cases, there are causes for concern. Changing majors can make it necessary to stay in college for an additional semester or two while you make up courses that are required for your new major. It can mean taking courses over the summer, or carrying a heavier course load while you are in school. All those activities cost money and can add to the stress of completing a college degree.

But even so, healthy percentages of people do change majors, and it is interesting to note that some majors are “stickier” than others and inspire more loyalty.

Here are some statistics from “Beginning College Students Who Change their Majors within 3 Years of Enrollment,” an article that appeared in the U.S. Department of Education’s Data Point newsletter in December, 2017. Note that these statistics pertain to students who started college in the 2011-12 academic year.

Of those students . . .

  • 52% of math majors switched to another major
  • 40% of natural sciences majors switched
  • 37% of education majors switched
  • 36% of humanities majors switched
  • 35% of all STEM majors switched
  • 32% of engineering majors switched
  • 32% of general studies majors switched
  • 31% of social science majors switched
  • 31% of business majors switched
  • 28% of computer and information sciences majors switched
  • 26% of healthcare field majors switched

What Do Those Statistics Mean?

If you were expecting to have one of those “A-HA” moments when reviewing those figures, you might have been disappointed. They seem to show, for example, that people are not necessarily more loyal to STEM majors than they are to non-STEM majors.

For example, 52% of math majors defected from that major – more than students who were pursuing any other major. Yet only 28% of computer and information sciences majors switched. That’s one of the lowest percentages tallied.

There are other surprises too, including the fact that 37% of education majors – a relatively high percentage – decide to switch. You would think that education majors, like students majoring in healthcare fields, were pursuing a “calling” and would be less likely to change majors. But apparently that is not the case; other factors must be influencing those students to change.

What might those other factors be? The U.S. Department of Education does not explore them in the “Beginning College Students Who Change their Majors within 3 Years of Enrollment” article. But we suspect that change-inducing factors could be something like these . . .

  • Students underestimated the difficulty of the courses needed to major in mathematics – and changed
  • Only 28% of computer majors defected because they already possessed a lot of knowledge about computers before declaring that major
  • Only 26% of health sciences majors switched because that major attracts students who are already committed to “higher” goals like helping people

We don’t know if those are the exact forces at work. So what are those forces? Perhaps the best way to understand them is to examine how we decided on our own major fields of study. How did we pick them, and why? How difficult has it been to complete the required courses for the major? Was the content of those courses what we expected when we declared the major, or different?

Those are important issues to consider, whether we are picking a college major, helping others do so . . . or simply trying to understand the bigger trends taking place in the world of higher education.

Ready to see bigger issues about the relationship between college majors and career success? Participate in a Student Research Foundation Career Pathway Study and you will be empowered with new information to make career and educational decisions that ultimately align with your interests, passions, and aptitudes.

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