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Survey: Most Students Find Choosing a Major Stressful

stressed college student

The older or younger the student enrolling, the more certain he or she is about having chosen the right major, at least in the beginning. While more than half of Gen X (older) and Gen Z (younger) students were confident in their career paths when they enrolled (56 percent and 52 percent, respectively), only 46 percent of Millennials — those born between 1982 and 1997 — reported the same.

Community college students were more likely to say that their institutions were helpful in guiding them on choosing the right major for their career goals, compared to four-year schools (59 percent versus 53 percent). Yet fewer than half of all students (49 percent) ended up sticking with their majors throughout their college careers, and a change of major was actually more common in community colleges (57 percent) than in four-year institutions (47 percent).

Those results came from a recent survey done among a thousand U.S. students, representing a mix of two-year and four-year, full-time and part-time and Gen Z, Millennial and Gen X participants. The survey work was sponsored by Ellucian, which produces a lengthy portfolio of education technology software and services for higher education.

According to "Course correction: Helping students find and follow a path to success," the process of selecting a major worries most students — with the exception of older students. While 68 percent of Gen Zers and 63 percent of Millennials expressed angst in choosing their career paths, just 49 percent of Gen Xers were as concerned.

The impact of those changes in majors takes multiple forms: the need for additional courses tied to the new major (reported by 39 percent of respondents) or general education classes (31 percent), delaying graduation by at least one semester (23 percent) or two or more semesters (28 percent), and increasing overall tuition (23 percent).

When it comes to getting guidance on matters related to academic planning, course requirements and current classes, the majority of people turn to their advisers; 71 percent of respondents said they met with their advisers at least twice during the most recent academic year. However, fewer than half of all students (48 percent) said they discuss career plans with their advisers.

The nature of advising varies distinctly between community college students and those who are transfer students within four-year schools. While most community college students were likely to reach out for guidance on the transfer process, such as which courses are eligible for transfer (66 percent) or how to transfer (56 percent), at four-year institutions, the main topics for transfer students were these two: which courses to take to fulfill their major requirements (64 percent) and which courses are eligible for transfer credit (59 percent).

According to the survey, students "want technology solutions" to help them stay on track. For example, 79 percent of all students said they'd find an online "what-if" tool for choosing majors or degrees "very" or "extremely" helpful. Seventy percent would like a virtual "one-stop," 66 percent would appreciate proactive advising interventions and 62 percent would welcome date reminder "nudges."

"Many students feel overwhelmed and confused about selecting a major, which ends up costing them serious time and money— and for some students a one-semester delay could put them off the track to completion entirely," noted Ellucian Senior Vice President of Digital Transformation Kari Branjord, in a statement. "It's essential that institutions look at pathways approaches alongside technologies that scale the student-adviser relationship to help guide students as they work toward their personal successful outcomes."

The report is openly available on the Ellucian website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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