Poor Fit Between Interests and Intended College Majors Does Not Improve for Many Students as They Progress to College

Posted July 24, 2014

New ACT Report Points to Need for Better Advising on College Major Selection in Both High School and College

IOWA CITY, Iowa—A new report from ACT suggests the fit between high school students’ interests and their intended college majors often does not improve—and sometimes gets worse—after they enter college and actually declare a major. The findings point to a need for better advising on the selection of a college major in both high school and college.

The report, College Choice Report: Part 2—Enrollment Patterns, shows that just 36 percent of 2013 high school graduates who named a planned major when they took the ACT actually declared a major that was a good fit with their interests after they enrolled in college, while 32 percent declared a major that was a poor fit with their interests. In comparison, 39 percent had showed a good “interest-major fit” with their intended major when in high school, while 29 percent had showed a poor fit.

“We clearly see an opportunity for counseling to improve the process of selecting a college major, both when students are in high school and when they land on a college campus,” said Jon Erickson, ACT president of education and career solutions. “Our data suggest many of these students are making choices that could end up negatively impacting them at some point. Counselors and advisors should have that conversation with them to help make sure they have the best available information when they are making these important decisions.”

While individuals select college majors and careers for a variety of reasons (employment prospects, salary, familiarity, etc.), ACT research has shown that a good fit between interests and college major can benefit students. Students who choose a major that fits their interests well are more likely to remain in their major, persist in college and complete their degree in a timely manner than those with a moderate or poor fit. In addition, students who change their major while in college may have to take extra courses to satisfy degree requirements or even transfer to a different institution, which could add costs and delay their graduation.

The findings show that even students who changed their intended major in college did not generally select a better one. Among students with a poor interest-major fit in high school who declared a different major in college, 54 percent switched to a major that was also a poor fit with their interests, while only 18 percent switched to one that was a good fit. Among students with a moderate interest-major fit who declared a different major in college, only 26 percent switched to a major that was a better fit with their interests, while 37 percent switched to one that was a worse fit.

“Getting students to start their college career on solid footing relative to their selected college major can have a significant impact on them and their success,” said Wayne Camara, senior vice president of research at ACT. “The more we can get students to understand and use all of the good information available to them, the better their decisions will be.”

The report contains a number of other findings on enrollment patterns at two- and four-year colleges that have implications for counseling and educational policy considerations, including the following:

  • 69 percent of ACT-tested students in the 2013 graduating class enrolled in college in fall 2013.
  • Females continue to be more likely than males to enroll in college, but the gap between them narrows as ACT composite scores increase.
  • Students with more highly educated parents continue to be more likely than those with less highly educated parents to enroll in college.
  • Students who planned to earn less than a bachelor’s degree continue to enroll in college at much lower rates than those who planned to earn a bachelor’s degree or higher.
  • Students who were undecided on their intended major enrolled in college at the same rate as those who stated a planned major.

ACT offers a number of free resources to help students plan for college and career, including the World-of-Work Map, which is included with every ACT score report, and ACT Profile, a college and career readiness social community which offers users a number of free inventories to use for college and career planning. ACT’s website for students, www.actstudent.org, also offers free planning resources for both college and career, including information on choosing a college major.

College Choice Report: Part 2—Enrollment Patterns focuses on high school graduates of the class of 2013 who took the ACT and enrolled in college. Part 1 of the report was released in November 2013.