Who Changes Majors? (Not Who You Think)

Graduates with math degrees fare well on the job market, but a greater share of students leave the major than any other, new federal data show. Are those students making a bad choice?

December 8, 2017
 

Almost a third of first-time college students choose a major and then change it at least once within three years, and students who started out in mathematics and the natural sciences are likelier than others to switch fields, federal data released Thursday show.

The brief report from the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics, drawn from the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study, finds that 33 percent of bachelor's degree pursuers who entered college in 2011-12 and 28 percent of students in associate degree programs had changed their major at least once by 2014.

About one in 10 had changed majors twice.

Students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs were likelier than those in non-STEM fields (35 versus 29 percent) to change majors.

And students who started out studying math were likeliest of all: 52 percent of those who initially declared as math majors ended up majoring in something else, followed by 40 percent of those in the natural sciences, 37 percent in education, 36 percent in humanities disciplines and 32 percent in engineering and general studies, as seen in the chart below.

Figure 2. Percentage of 2011-12 beginning postsecondary students who ever changed majors, by original declared field of study: 2014. Bar chart shows 35 percent of total STEM majors changed majors, as did 29 percent of total non-STEM majors. Mathematics: 52 percent. Natural sciences: 40 percent. Engineering and engineering technology: 32 percent. Computer and information sciences: 28 percent. Education: 37 percent. Humanities: 36 percent. General studies and other: 32 percent. Social sciences: 31 percent. Business: 31 percent. Health-care fields: 26 percent. Other applied: 22 percent.

What does it mean that math majors are likelier to leave their major than students in other fields? Given the marketplace demand for math majors (and students in other STEM fields), is it a problem that STEM majors are abandoning their majors at a greater rate than other students are?

Ed Venit, managing director of the student success collaborative at EAB, which published a study last year showing that students who changed majors graduate at a higher rate than those who don't, said many students who plan to major in rigorous fields like math because they excelled in high school may find themselves "in a little over their head" in the college-level discipline.

Venit said that EAB researchers more generally find a tendency among students to move from specialized fields like math (and the "extremes" of fields in the arts and humanities as well, like the fine arts) into more catchall fields such as business and psychology.

Given employers' strong demand for math majors and other students with strong quantitative skills, and by extension the desire among students to pursue such majors, it's essential that educators seek ways to make those fields less off-putting to students -- and not by reducing rigor, Venit said.

"You would never want to water down the rigor" of math and other fields, he said, but it does make sense to redesign the classes and improve the nature of instruction (as various national initiatives are doing). Colleges and universities also should strive, Venit said, to create desirable "off-ramps" for students who get waylaid from their original academic goal (for instance, directing students whose academic skills may fall short of those necessary to become a nurse or doctor into public health or other health professions).

Michael Pearson, executive director of the Mathematical Association of America, acknowledged that math has sometimes been seen as a barrier to postsecondary success and that math educators were striving to improve instruction and the perceived relevance of the discipline.

But he noted that enrollments in math courses at all levels of education are up about 20 percent in the last five years, and said that the interest in graduates with strong quantitative skills was strengthening the "pervasiveness of mathematics."

Pearson said he was inclined to attribute the large proportion of students leaving math for other fields more to the reality that college students "are exposed to new areas of study, like engineering, that don’t have nearly as much visibility in high school" than to a decision against math.

"I suspect they're choosing to use their math skills in new ways," he said.

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