Education Research

Employer Advice Most Valued, Least Used in Choosing College Major

how students choose college majors 

Advice about what to study in college comes from four primary sources, according to new survey results:

  • "Formal" sources, such as high school and college counselors and print and internet media;
  • The "informal" social network, including family, friends and community leaders;
  • The "informal" school network, counting non-advisor staff and coaches; and
  • "Informal" work-based sources involving employers, coworkers and people with experience in the field.

Most recent graduates or current college students (56 percent) get their guidance from the members of their informal social networks — those family members and friends, compared to 21 percent for those informal work-based sources. Yet, when it comes to choosing a field of study, the best advice comes from the work-based sources. Eighty-three percent of people said that input was more useful than any other kind of guidance, ahead of those informal social networks by 12 percentage points.

While previous studies have examined the long-term impacts of college choice and majors on career opportunities and economic mobility, less understood is how students decide what to study. That was the purpose of "Major Influence: Where Students Get Valued Advice on What to Study in College," the survey undertaken by Strada Education Network and Gallup. The two organizations are performing a series of short surveys as part of its "Education Consumer Pulse," in order to gain insights about postsecondary education. The latest survey asked two open-ended questions:

  • From what resources or people did you get advice about the major or field you were going to study during your degree program?
  • How helpful was the advice you received from each source?

The researchers analyzed responses from 22,087 U.S. adults aged 18 to 65 who attended two-year and four-year colleges, including those who didn't achieve their degree. "Recent" students are those who attended between 2010 and 2017.

The most helpful sources for advice varied depending on the highest level of education earned by the respondent. For example, respondents with an associate's degree listed their most helpful sources as community leaders (92 percent), high school coaches (89 percent) and employers/coworkers, high school teachers and those with experience in the field (85 percent). For those with bachelor's degrees, the choices were people in the field (85 percent), community leaders (83 percent) and military (81 percent).

how students pick a college major

Getting advice about college majors: the source and the usefulness (Source: Strada Education Network and Gallup's "Major Influence: Where Students Get Valued Advice on What to Study in College")

Compared with all other sources of advice, those who said they consulted work-based sources for insights about a field of study were less likely to have second thoughts about their ultimate choice of major (31 percent) than those relying on formal help (40 percent).

The report that resulted from the survey noted the "disconnect" that existed between the sources students go to most often for advice on what to study and the value of the advice they received. Why, researchers asked, was the most valued sources of help the least used?

Their conclusion: It's time to update the advising process and look for more ways to give students opportunities to "try on" jobs.

"College and high school counselors are overburdened and underfunded, and their roles at institutions can vary widely," the report stated. Plus, "today's students are accessing information about their education in ways the traditional model of advising was not designed to support — including a stark rise in reliance on internet media for advice." In combination, those challenges facing the "formal channels" for student advising call for a "retooling" of the traditional model of advising to fit the changing needs of students to "bolster its effectiveness."

One possible improvement to advising is to increase "students' exposure to informal work-related experiences." Though these were pursued by on a "small number of individuals," those who consulted with work-based sources "rated the helpfulness of the advice they received among the highest from any source."

"We now know that, if given the chance, more than half of U.S. adults would make a different choice about where or what they studied in college. Today's report takes a deeper look at why so many college attendees have second thoughts," said Bill Hansen, president and CEO of Strada, alluding in a prepared statement to a previous study done by Strada and Gallup. "Understanding how and why students decide what to study in college is critical to helping them not only to complete, but make successful transitions from education to meaningful employment. This report calls for fresh thinking on how we increase access to valued advice, especially from work-based resources, for all students."

The report is available on the Gallup & Strada Education Network.

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