Right-Fitting Students with Majors Increases Chances of Academic Success

If a high school student tells you he or she plans to study philosophy or ethnic studies in college, chances are, they'll have switched to something else by the time they hit their second year of higher education. Only 31 percent of declared majors in philosophy or theology stay that way when the student has to officially declare a major. For ethnic studies, the rate goes down to eight percent. At the other extreme, 63 percent of high schoolers who say they intend to major in business will persist in that direction. Overall, half of all college students end up declaring a major consistent with their precollege plans.

Those results come out of a study done by testing organization ACT, which asks students about their planned majors when they register for and take the ACT college admissions test.

"College Choice Report: Part 3 — Persistence and Transfer" is the third report issued by ACT. Two earlier reports explored enrollment patterns and the connection between planned majors and how students choose colleges.

In general, the latest report found, second-year college students with higher academic achievement based on their ACT composite scores are more likely than their peers with lower academic achievement to have declared a college major that's consistent with their plans.

When students expressed their planned majors during the ACT registration process, they could also indicate how certain they were of their choice — very sure, fairly sure or not sure. ACT researchers found an 18 percentage-point difference in the share of students who declared a major within their planned major area between those who were very sure and those who weren't sure at all.

Students are also invited to take an "interest inventory" when they register for the test, which provides information about the types of careers and majors that match those expressed interests. The researchers found a 14 percentage-point difference in consistency rates between those who had a good fit between major and interests and those with a poor fit.

Taken all together those students with higher composite score, higher certainty in major choice, and higher match between interests and fit with a major tended to be far more likely to stick with their majors than not. That's important, the report's authors noted, because ACT research has shown that students who choose a major that matches their interests are more likely than those who don't to remain in that major, to persist in college and complete their degree in a timely way.

Besides, while experimenting with majors in college isn't uncommon for college students, noted ACT President Jon Erickson, "it can require a significant investment of time and money."

Among several recommendations, ACT advised colleges to examine student ACT scores, interest-major fit score and self-reported certainty level in their recruiting processes "to better identify students who may have a stronger interest in a particular major and who might be more likely to enroll in a particular major." The organization also recommended that institutions promote their advising and career development services to prospects that are undecided or uncertain of their major or occupation plans.

The results of the research "reaffirm the importance of career exploration, counseling and a good decision making process when high school students are making plans for college," Erickson said. "They also reinforce ACT's contention that multiple dimensions of readiness should be monitored and developed as students prepare for success after high school."

The ACT report is available on the organization's site.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.