Why do Students Struggle with Choosing a Major?

By Janet Ha Poirot

When Mia AAssar, Shannon Howley and Renata Thornton were given a list of research topics for their HONORS 330 class, one idea immediately caught their attention: Researching undergraduate major selection and advising at George Mason.  Having personally experienced the struggle of major selection, they agreed this was a relevant topic and hoped their findings could help future Mason students.  Currently, George Mason University offers 82 distinct degree programs.  In 1971, George Mason offered 24.  While the large selection of majors provides a lot of choices and adds to the diversity of programs available, it also hinders the decision-making process.

Historically, universities structured knowledge as disciplines within colleges and students could select majors which were distinct and separate from others.  As universities grew, an increasing number of subjects became subdivided and specialized into specific fields of study, increasing the number of majors offered.  Unfortunately, this expansion of choices has left students feeling frustrated as they navigate an often confusing and overwhelming process of major selection.  Who feels competent enough to choose among 82 different majors?  The choices feel endless for an adult with work experience let alone an 18 year old.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz has argued in The Paradox of Choice that an abundance of choice often leads to depression, feelings of loneliness and decision-making paralysis.  Schwartz states when consumers are faced with many choices, they are more likely to delay making a choice indefinitely.  Given the perceived importance of choosing a major, one can imagine how students might feel when selecting a major initially or considering a change of major.  Consequences could include increased financial cost (in tuition), more time, and more uncertainty about a career.  During the course of their research, Mia, Shannon and Renata found that when students delay selecting a major they sacrifice timely degree completion and overall college satisfaction (Venit 2016).

The major selection process is becoming cumbersome for students as they review the hundreds of courses, majors, concentrations, and minors the university offers.  Mia says of her experience searching through the course catalog, “I had cross disciplinary interests that weren’t reflected in a cross disciplinary curriculum.”  Mia described challenges in locating courses that could apply to more than one major.  The way courses are delineated in how they count towards a major is not clear to students.

Shannon originally started at Mason as a Global Affairs major, but after taking a few courses, she realized she was more interested in government and policy.  So she switched her major to Government and International Politics and encountered a problem: some of the courses she took for her old major did not count towards her new major.  She also had friends who had to stay at George Mason for an extra year to graduate because they changed their major.  Renata was a Government and International Politics major but after taking a few courses she realized she was more interested in domestic policy rather than international politics.  She changed her major to Public Administration, which was a better fit for her.  This switch in major enabled her to gain quantitative experience with required Economics and Statistics courses. These courses qualified her for an internship at the Brookings Institute where she worked heavily with statistics software.  Had she not switched majors, she might not have been accepted for the highly coveted internship.  However, not all students who desire to change their majors end up doing so.

According to the research Mia, Shannon and Renata conducted, 28% of Mason students surveyed reported they considered changing their majors but did not.  The most frequent reason cited was fear of losing credits and delaying graduation.  However, EAB has published a study showing students who do not change their major are slightly less likely to graduate than those who do change.  Ed Venit, a senior director at the EAB, speculates in an Inside Higher Education article, “Students who stay in a major may feel obligated to do so and end up not graduating.”  As many as 80% of students surveyed change their major at least once during college.  Considering how important exploration in academics is in helping students find and narrow their fields of interest, these three Honors students came up with two proposals to help alleviate some of the stressors of major selection.  Their first recommendation is consistent with education researchers who have suggested using the term “exploratory” instead of “undeclared” or “undecided” to describe students who do not yet have a major.  The latter terms carry negative connotations and could possibly dissuade students from taking more time to carefully consider their academic options.  The second proposal affirmed the University’s plan to introduce meta-majors.

Meta-majors allow the university to give students a better handle on a diverse array of majors outside of the college or school structure.  Instead of students reviewing the overwhelming options of 82 distinct majors with similar majors found in different schools, they can choose among nine broader categories of meta-majors.  Operating like a funnel, meta-majors allows students to explore their academic interests in a way that allows them to discover new options and connect possibilities to their own interests and abilities.   In their research paper, the students state, “it appears likely that providing an option for students to accumulate credits that are applicable to a range of potential majors could create a better avenue for students to pick a major that suits them best.”

Mason will begin to offer meta-majors to students by the Fall 2019.  Academic advisors can help students explore their interests via meta-majors and either affirm a planned major or increase student confidence that the major they choose is a good match for their talents and goals. Academic planning will allow students to explore and pivot to related majors as students learn more about themselves and the world. Mia AAssar says, “I liked the idea of the clusters that would provide me with the credits that eventually would count toward one degree.”  These three students are hopeful the work they completed for the research project will one day allow students to take time to explore their academic options and grant them the autonomy they need to become well-rounded scholars.