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Study: Switching Majors Increases Graduation Rates

Contrary to popular belief, switching college majors can actually increase a student's likelihood of graduating, according to a new study from the EAB.

Conventional wisdom has suggested that students who switch majors are less likely to graduate or graduate on time. The EAB set out to test this wisdom by analyzing data from its Student Success Collaborative platform. After examining data from 78,000 students at 10 public and private institutions, it found that students who finalize their major between their second and eighth semester have an 83 percent graduation rate, whereas students who finalize their major in their first semester have a 79 percent graduation rate.

"The data show that students have far more flexibility to change their majors than many students, parents and administrators assumed," said Ed Venit, senior director at EAB, in a news release. "Exploration can be a positive growth experience that supports student success."

Other key findings from the study:

  • An estimated 75 to 85 percent of students switch majors;
  • Students who finalize their major after their first semester of freshman year and before the second semester of their junior year graduate in four years on average;
  • Students who finalize their major after their second semester of junior year often require an additional semester of school to meet their graduation requirements;
  • One quarter of students who finalize their major during their senior still graduate within four years; and
  • Students who change their major in the fall of their junior year have the highest rate of graduation.

The EAB points to the meta-major model employed at Georgia State University as a way to help students explore a general field of study before deciding on a major. The university offers seven meta-majors, which are groups of courses within a general field of study. After students have completed some courses in their meta-major, they can narrow down to a specific major within that general field while applying earned credits to their declared major.

According to a blog post on the EAB's site, "GSU has actually had a 32 percent decrease in the number of major changes among undergraduate students. And students who graduated this past spring took an average about half of a semester less to complete their degree requirements than those who graduated in 2013."

Timothy Renick, vice provost and vice president for enrollment management and student success at the university, believes the meta-major pathway has been particularly helpful for first-generation and low-income students. "It was overwhelming, especially for first-generation, low-income students … to try to wade through these choices and options," he told the EAB. "In most cases students were making the wrong choices."

The full report, "How Late Is Too Late? Myths and Facts about the Consequences of Switching College Majors," is available as a free, downloadable PDF from the EAB's site.

About the Author

Leila Meyer is a technology writer based in British Columbia. She can be reached at [email protected].

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