Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

The Relationship between Choice of Major and Career, Experience of University and Attrition

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

The Relationship between Choice of Major and Career, Experience of University and Attrition

Article excerpt


The attrition rate for bachelor degree students is one of the performance indicators currently used to allocate funding from Australian Learning and Teaching Performance Fund, and it is a performance indicator likely to be used into the future as governments seek to ensure a nexus between higher education inputs and outputs. Universities, therefore, have a strategic imperative to understand and manage the determinants of attrition.

Studies of attrition and retention over the last 30 years have progressively confirmed the impact of what the student brings to college or university studies, especially in terms of psychological predisposition or motivations (for example, Bean & Metzner, 1985; Christie, Munro & Fisher, 2004; DeBerard, Spielmans & Julka, 2004; Eaton & Bean, 1995; Rayle, Robinson Kurprus & Arredondo, 2006). Often guided by models of attrition and retention such as those developed by Tinto (1975; 1993) or Bean (1980), research into individual student characteristics has highlighted the role of what Tinto calls 'goal commitment' (1975, p. 93) and what Bean refers to as 'practical value' and 'major certainty' (1980, p. 159): that is, the identification of and commitment to a clear career goal or major. (1) It is this specific body of attrition-related research on which this article builds.

Interactions between major, attrition, and persistence

In studies investigating persistence, Sandler (2000) found that persistence at university was promoted by students' confidence in their ability to make appropriate career-related decisions (of which the choice of major is one). Similarly, Kreysa (2006) found that declaring a major increased the likelihood of persistence by 22 per cent, leading him to conclude that students who had clear career goals--and were thus able to choose a major from the outset--were more likely to be retained. Allen and Robbins (2008) found that students who chose a major that matched their interests, as measured in terms of academic discipline, college commitment and social connectedness, were more likely to persist, independent of level of academic performance. Using Holland's interest inventory, which investigates occupational preferences categorised as realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising or conventional, Tracey and Robbins (2006) also found that persistence was related to congruence between interest and major, but only for students with lower overall levels of interest.

Studies dealing with choice of major and clarity of career direction from the perspective of causal factors in attrition rather than persistence also point to the impact of career goals and interest-major congruence. Yorke (2000), who surveyed students who had withdrawn (dropped out) from six universities during two one-year periods, found that choice of the wrong field of study and lack of commitment to the chosen program had the greatest impact of all factors associated with departure from higher education. Similarly, Christie, Munro and Fisher (2004) found that poor choice of course was the reason for withdrawal most commonly given by those who had dropped out of university altogether. Long, Ferrier and Heagney (2006) found that a change of career direction was a key factor in students' decision to discontinue, reported by 21.6 per cent of students who did not return to university after their first year although, like Christie, Munro and Fisher, they also acknowledge that withdrawal decisions usually involve a combination of factors.

Intriguingly, independent of student interest in the field of study and clarity of career direction, it appears that the choice of faculty, and also major, may influence persistence and attrition in other ways. Johnson (1996) found that not only did the withdrawal peak occur in different years for education, arts and science students, but that withdrawn students from each of the faculties reported different levels of loneliness and social integration. …

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