Key Findings and Recommendations

Key Finding 1: Although a Majority of ACT-Tested Students Select a Planned Major, Many Students Are Not Sure of Their Choices

Of the ACT-tested graduating class of 2013, 4 out of 5 students selected a planned major during ACT registration. Although the likelihood of selecting a planned major varies by academic achievement (as measured by ACT Composite score), it is consistently high for all achievement ranges. Despite the fact that a large majority of ACT-tested students selected a planned major, only 2 out of 5 who did so indicated that they were very sure of their planned major choice. Moreover, compared to their lower-achieving peers, students with higher academic achievement levels were far less likely to be sure of their planned major choice. A similar pattern is evident by the students’ parent education level, where students from more highly educated families were less likely than their peers to be sure of their planned major choice.

In addition to this degree of uncertainty among students who selected a planned major, 15% of ACT-tested students indicated that they were undecided about their choice of major and another 6% neither selected a planned major nor indicated that they were undecided. The likelihood of a student being undecided increases as achievement level increases. Taken together, this evidence suggests that highachieving students may also need extensive advising and help in selecting majors and careers.

Key Finding 2: Few Students Are Selecting Planned Majors that Are a Good Fit with Their Interests

Only about 1 out of 3 students (36%) who selected a planned major during ACT registration chose a major that is a good fit with their interests as measured by the ACT Interest Inventory. Moreover, students with lower levels of academic achievement (as measured by their ACT Composite score) are far less likely than their higher-achieving peers to select a planned major that is a good fit with their interests. A similar pattern is evident by the students’ parent education level, with first-generation college students being less likely than their peers from more highly educated families of selecting a planned major that is a good fit with their interests. Although Interest-Major Fit increases with the students’ certainty of their planned major choice, only 2 out of 5 students who were very sure of their planned major choice selected a major that is a good fit with their interests. The likelihood of selecting a planned major that is a good fit with student interests varies considerably by their planned major area. If students who selected planned majors that were a moderate or poor fit with their interests had instead selected planned majors that had the best fit with their interests, the overall distribution of these students across major areas would be quite different.

Key Finding 3: A Majority of Students Want Assistance with Their Educational and Occupational Plans

Roughly 3 out of 5 students (62%) indicated during ACT registration that they need assistance with deciding their educational and occupational plans. Compared with students who selected a planned major, those students who were undecided about their choice of major or who left the question blank had a greater likelihood of reporting that they need assistance with educational and occupational planning. Among those who selected a planned major, students who were not as sure of their planned major choice were more likely than their peers to report that they need assistance with deciding their educational and occupational plans. However, even among those students who were very sure of their planned major choice, nearly half indicated that they need assistance, suggesting that educational and occupational guidance would be helpful for a wide variety of students.

Key Finding 4: Both Choice of Planned Major and Interest-Major Fit Vary in Meaningful Ways by Gender

In general, females were more likely than males to select a planned major and to be sure of their planned major choice. Among those students who selected a planned major, males and females tended to select different fields of study, which creates gender imbalance across planned major areas. In particular, large gender discrepancies in planned major choices in favor of females are evident in the areas of Health Sciences and Technologies; Education; and Health Administration and Assisting. Large gender discrepancies in planned major choices in favor of males are evident in the areas of Engineering; Business; and Computer Science and Mathematics.

Overall, a similar share of females and males selected majors that are a good fit with their interests. This overall similarity, however, masks some important gender differences in Interest-Major Fit that are evident within particular major areas. For example, in such areas as Repair, Production, and Construction; Agriculture and Natural Resources Conservation; Engineering; Computer Science and Mathematics; and Engineering Technology and Drafting, males are more likely than females to have selected a planned major that is a good fit with their interests. In contrast, in such areas as Communications; Education; and Visual and Performing Arts, females are more likely than males to have selected a planned major that is a good fit with their interests. If those students who selected planned majors that were a moderate or poor fit with their interests had instead selected planned majors that had the best fit with their interests, there would be a greater gender balance within the distribution of these same students across planned major areas.

Key Finding 5: For Many Students, Availability of a Particular Major Is the Most Important Factor in Choosing a College

Half of all students (50%) who selected a planned major when they registered for the ACT indicated that the availability of a particular college major or program of study was their most important factor in selecting a college. Furthermore, the students’ likelihood of reporting college major as the most important factor in their college decision increases with the students’ ACT Composite score, parent education level, degree aspirations, certainty of planned major choice, and Interest-Major Fit. These findings suggest that students would benefit from having greater access to information about the programs of study that are available at the colleges they are considering.

Key Finding 6: Although Academic Achievement Is an Important Factor in the Decision to Attend College, There Are Persistent Gaps in College Attendance Rates by Other Nonacademic Factors

As expected, students with higher academic achievement were more likely to enroll in college and to attend a 4-year college than their lower-achieving peers. Yet, even after taking into account differences in college enrollment rates and 4-year college attendance rates by academic achievement, there remained notable gaps in both of these rates by factors such as students’ gender, their parents’ education level, and their degree aspirations. Specifically, females, students whose parents earned advanced degrees, and students who had higher degree aspirations were more likely to enroll in college and to attend a 4-year college. These gaps are more prominent among those with lower academic achievement, and they tend to diminish (and, in some cases, become nonexistent) as students’ achievement level rises.

Key Finding 7: Students with Greater Certainty about Their Choice of Planned Major Are More Likely to Commit to Their Major During the First Year of College

Forty-one percent of students who selected a planned major during ACT registration indicated that they were very sure of their planned major choice; 45% were fairly sure, and 15% were not sure. This self-reported measure of students’ commitment to their planned major choice is a good predictor of whether they will commit to their planned major during the first year of college. In particular, we found a 20 percentage-point difference in the share of students who declared a major within their planned major area between students who were very sure and those who were not sure of their planned major choice. This difference is substantial, being similar in magnitude to the difference in the share of students who declared a major within their planned major area between 4-year college students in the ACT Composite score range of 1–15 and those in the range of 33–36.

Key Finding 8: Students Who Selected a Planned Major That Is a Good Fit with Their Measured Interests Are More Likely to Declare a Major That Is Consistent with Their Plans

Thirty-six percent of students who selected a planned major during ACT registration chose a major that is a good fit with their interests, as measured by the ACT Interest Inventory; another 32% had moderate Interest-Major Fit, whereas 32% had poor fit. As with the self-reported measure of students’ certainty of their planned major choice, the extent to which students’ choice of planned major aligns with their measured interests is a good predictor of whether they will follow through on their plans during college. Specifically, between students who had a good Interest-Major Fit and those with a poor Interest-Major fit with their planned major choice, there is a 10–15 percentage-point difference in the share of students who followed through on their plans and declared a major within their planned major area.

Key Finding 9: Many Students Who Declare a Major Outside of Their Planned Major Area Do Not See a Notable Improvement in the Fit Between Their Choice of Major and Their Measured Interests

Fifty-seven percent of 4-year college students and 44% of 2-year college students declared a major inside of their planned major area. Compared to these students, those who declared a major outside of their planned major area were less likely to have good Interest-Major Fit with the planned major they selected during ACT registration. Declaring a major in an area that was different from the area of their planned major, however, did not improve the Interest-Major Fit for many of these students. In particular, 54% of students who had poor Interest-Major Fit with their planned major still had poor Interest-Major Fit with their declared major, and 64% of students who had moderate Interest-Major Fit with their planned major had moderate or poor Interest-Major Fit with their declared major. Students who had good Interest-Major Fit with their planned major did not fare much better than their peers when choosing a declared major outside of their planned major area, as only 41% of these students still had good Interest-Major Fit with their declared major.

Key Finding 10: Students Who Are Undecided about Their College Major Are Less Likely to Declare a Major That Is a Good Fit with Their Interests

Students who were undecided about their planned major when they registered for the ACT represented 15% of all ACT-tested students. Compared to students who selected a planned major, undecided students were just as likely to enroll in college, and they attended 4-year and 2-year colleges at the same rates. However, undecided students were less likely than students who selected a planned major to have declared a major during their first year of college that was a good fit with their measured interests. Moreover, this gap in Interest-Major Fit between undecided students and students who selected a planned major actually increases among students with higher academic achievement.

Recommendations

When recruiting students, colleges should:

  • Consider looking at students’ intended major while simultaneously considering their Interest-Major Fit score and self-reported certainty of planned major choice in order to better identify students who may have a stronger interest in a particular major and who might be more likely to enroll in a particular major. This information is especially important when trying to recruit more male students to your campus and when trying to increase the enrollment of females within particular STEM fields.
  • Use student results from the ACT Interest Inventory to provide prospective students who are undecided about their planned major choice with information about particular programs of study at the college for which they might have good fit.
  • Promote institutional strengths in advising and career development to prospective students who are undecided about their major or occupation, are uncertain of their planned major or occupational choice, or indicate that they want assistance with educational and occupational planning. For example, admissions personnel could communicate information about academic advising, special programs for undecided students, internships, career counseling, and other programs and services that can help students make informed decisions about educational majors and careers.

After students enroll, colleges should:

  • Use Interest-Major Fit scores as a part of institutional efforts to identify students who could benefit from advising and career planning interventions intended to guide students into better-fitting college majors.
  • Use information regarding students’ status as undecided, certainty of their planned major choice, or their request for assistance with educational and career planning to help target students for additional academic advising and career counseling services as part of student orientation and first-year programming.
  • Consider different advising strategies for high-achieving and low-achieving students, as high-achieving students are less likely to be very sure about their planned major choices but more likely to have good Interest-Major Fit, whereas low-achieving students are more likely to be very sure about their planned major choices but less likely to have good Interest-Major Fit.