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The most consequential, and least informed, decision that college students make

Students bring their belongings into Elkton Hall at the University of Maryland in 2018. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

When you pick a college major, you’re (theoretically) setting the trajectory of your entire career. Yet this life-altering decision can be altered by something as trivial as what time of day you took the class, or what you happened to be studying when the deadline for picking a major arrived.

A clever new analysis shows students pick their majors on surprisingly flimsy pretexts.

And another recent piece of research demonstrates almost two out of every five college grads will switch majors at least once. Sometimes they’re struggling with grades, or the classes are too competitive. But in a finding that helps explain the narrow U.S. science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) pipeline, it’s also possible they’re doing well but prefer to be with students who share their gender or background. They may be retreating from an overtly or implicitly sexist or racist environment.

These new studies expand our understanding of a formative moment in adult life by evaluating the circumstances and incentives behind a 19- or 20-year-old’s choice of major. The researchers don’t just want to understand what students study; they want to understand why.

U.S. Military Academy cadets don’t get much flexibility. They’re assigned schedules, and even some classes, at random. All the random assignments, which would be impossible at most civilian institutions, have created a data set that allows economists to answer tricky questions such as what’s really causing a student to pick one major over another, said University of Maryland economist Nolan Pope.

The answer, it turns out, is dumb luck. Students who happen to be assigned classes in one of four required subjects during the semester when they’re supposed to pick a major are twice as likely to major in the assigned subject, according to a new working paper from Pope, and Richard Patterson and Aaron Feudo of the U.S. Military Academy.

This held true regardless of how well a student did or how much they liked the course, according to the economists’ analysis of U.S. Military Academy class data from 2001 to 2015. Their database included grades, class times and students’ opinions of the course. It allowed them to control for factors such as students’ hometowns and racial backgrounds.

“Small and seemingly unimportant things can really have a large impact on people’s life decisions,” Pope said. Often students cite a specific class or teacher as justification for this life-altering choice.

In a related paper, the economists, along with Carnegie Mellon’s Kareem Haggag, showed students are about 10 percent less likely to major in a subject if they took a class at 7:30 a.m. Likewise, as students grow more fatigued during the day they grow about 10 percent less likely to major in the subject covered by each successive class.

“You think back on that class that you took in math, and you’re confusing the fact that you were tired while taking the class with that you didn’t like math,” Pope said. “You’re confusing the state you were in with the quality of the major.”

Given how easily a first choice of major can be swayed by accidents of timing and environment, it’s perhaps not surprising that 37 percent of students eventually switch, according to a new paper from University of Memphis economists Carmen Astorne-Figari and Jamin D. Speer that will be published in the journal Economics of Education Review.

The Memphis economists focused on a long-running survey of almost 9,000 students born between 1980 and 1984. Participants reported their college major every year, as well as their grades, standardized test scores and basic demographics. Using this and other sources, the economists compared a student’s performance with the content and competitiveness of their major, and the makeup of their class.

Who switches?

Students with lower GPAs are more likely to leave their major. But so are women of all ability levels. In contrast, men are more likely to drop out instead of sticking around and trying a different subject, according to a study published last year by Astorne-Figari and Speer.

Both men and women are most likely to abandon majors in the sciences. In addition, education and philosophy appear in the top five majors men leave most frequently, while women are more likely to leave computer science.

Where do they switch to?

Students tend to switch to less competitive majors. But the breakdown by gender and test scores reveals a surprising divide: “Men and higher-ability women are not deterred by competitive majors, but lower-ability women are,” the economists write. “If anything, lower-ability men are less deterred by competitive majors than higher-ability men are.”

The economists also compared the subject-matter content of each major and found students with lower grades are likely to switch to a less-related major. If you’re doing well in general science, you may choose a similar, challenging major that fits your interest, such as biology. If you’re doing poorly, you may opt for a different, less-competitive major, such as business.

“If you get low grades, that predicts you’ll switch majors, but it also predicts what type of major you’ll switch to,” Speer said. “The people who are switching from engineering to education are different from the people who are switching from engineering to biology.”

On net, business, social sciences and economics tend to gain the most students from major switching, while biology, computer science and medicine (medical and health services) tend to lose the most.

Why do they switch?

Major-hopping students aren’t just seeking a better match for their academic strengths. We know this because switching doesn’t improve students’ grades, even when they’ve moving from a competitive subject to an easier one.

The economist’s interactions with students helped confirm this conclusion. “When they talked about leaving majors, they talked about the people as much as they did the academics,” Speer said. Perhaps even more.

Instead, they tend to seek out majors that, the authors write, “look like them.” The strongest trend is the flow of women to majors with more women, but it’s consistent across the board: whites move to white-dominated measures, black students seek out majors where black students are better represented, and so on.

“That’s really interesting to me that people would make this decision that has huge implications for their career based partially on who they would want to be around,” Speer said.

About a third of men and a fifth of women start out in STEM, and about 30 percent of those men and 43 percent of those women switch out of the subject area. Women who leave STEM tend to go to majors that cover similar subjects and require similar aptitudes, but are less-competitive and less male, such as nursing.

“Studies show that, on average, more women than men dislike competition, so it is not surprising that women are more likely to leave STEM,” Astorne-Figari said.

But, she added, women who remain in majors like engineering tend to enjoy a competitive environment.

“There are a lot of women who are very competent in math and science. They typically go to other fields that use science or other fields that use math but are less dominated by men,” Speer said.