Choosing a college major represents a major life decision--a decision that research has shown to be the most frequently identified life regret for Americans. The focus of this study is to identify the foundations of the psychological process by which undergraduate students select their academic majors. A mean-send analysis was first employed to identify the factors that students consider integral to the process of selecting a major. This qualitative study was followed by a large-sample survey of undergraduate students and used conjoint analysis to better understand how "important" the identified factors are to students as part of this decision-making process. Finally, feedback from practitioners was sought and used to create a list of recommendations for recruiting and advising today's college students.
"There is, perhaps, no college decision that is more thought-provoking, gut wrenching and rest-of-your life oriented--or disoriented--than the choice of a major." (St. John, 2000, p.22)
One might assume that choosing a college major represents a major life decision requiring extensive decision-making over a period of time, especially considering the commitment of time and resources. However, undergraduate students commonly articulate knowing other students who chose their academic major for less-than-rational reasons. In fact, some of these students even admit that this phenomenon describes their own decision-making process. Therefore, it is not surprising that Roese and Summerville (2005) cite meta-analytical evidence that the most frequently identified life regret for Americans involve their educational choices.
Anecdotal evidence leading to our undertaking this study seems to imply that some (perhaps many) undergraduate students employ strategies of indecision as opposed to strategies of cognitive decision-making in that they "back into" a major rather than actively choose a major, often by employing heuristics. For example, a student may choose a particular major because "I don't want to sit at a desk all day" or "I don't like math."
The current study differs from previous treatments of this topic in that we attempt to gain a better understanding of the decision-making process using a holistic approach including a qualitative and quantitative study. However, like other studies, this study is based upon the premise that there is a benefit to making "good" major choices. We define a "good" major choice as the major best capable of helping the student to achieve their educational and post-education goals. Consequently, we would expect, for example, that the match between the students' abilities and interests and the abilities required by the major would be important attributes of perceived "good" majors by undergraduate students.
The focus of this study is to identify the foundations of the psychological process by which undergraduate students select their academic majors. In the research that follows, we first employ means-end analysis to identify the factors or elements that students consider integral to the process of selecting a major through qualitative in-depth interviews. Second, we conduct a large-sample survey of undergraduate students in order to better understand how "important" the identified factors are to students as part of this decision-making process. Finally, we sought feedback from practitioners in advising and recruiting in terms of how these findings fit with current methods of recruiting and advising college students. The results of that feedback were used to create a list of recommendations for recruiting students.
A review of the general social science literature suggests two primary research emphases in the area of major choice. First, and most directly related to the current research, is a general body of knowledge identifying specific factors that influence the choice of major selection (DeMarie and Aloise-Young, 2003; Francisco, Noland, and Kelly, 2003; Pappu, 2004; LaBarbera and Simonoff, 1999; Kimweli and Richards, 1999). Second, there is a subset of the general research that focuses on the relationship between specific individual demographics (e.g. race and gender and year in school) and major choice (Malgwi, Howe and Burnaby, 2005; DelVecchio and Honeycutt, 2002; Lackland and DeLisi, 2001; Galotti, 1999). While interesting, this second, more narrowly focused area of inquiry, is outside the scope of the current research. A long list of factors have been shown to influence students' major choice, but the factors themselves and the name used for each factor have varied from study to study. Our review of the literature suggests four categories: Sources of Information and Influence, Job Characteristics, Fit and Interest in Subject, and Characteristics of the Major/Degree.
The first category, Sources of Information and Influence, includes individuals who provide information and influence, and also events and print media that provide information. Several studies have concluded that parental influence has a strong effect on major choice (Chung, Loeb, and Gonzo, 1996; Keillor, Bush, and Bush, 1995; Newell, Titus, and West, 1996). However, Adams, Pryor and Adams (1994) reported that only 4% of the respondents indicated parental pressure and 10% indicated the major being similar to their parent's occupation as strong influences on their decision. Interestingly, business majors appear more affected by their parents' occupation and socioeconomic status than nonbusiness majors (Leppel, Williams, and Waldauer, 2001). Adams et al. also reported that 9% of respondents indicated the recommendations of friends and relatives and 6% indicated that the recommendations of counselors influenced them strongly when choosing a major. As a comparison, the highest rated determinant, genuine interest in the subject, received a resounding 59% of respondents indicating it strongly influenced their choice …