A Major in Science? Initial Beliefs and Final Outcomes for College Major and Dropout

Issue/Topic: STEM; Postsecondary Success--Retention/Persistence
Author(s): Stinebrickner, Todd; Stinebrickner, Ralph
Organization(s): Berea College; University of Western Ontario
Publication: National Bureau of Economic Research
Published On: 6/3/2013

Often, students select majors based on whether they feel that the disciplines are a good match in terms of interest and ability. From a policy perspective, it is important to study which intervening factors affect choice of major, especially when misconceptions about program rigor or personal ability can steer students away from math and science fields. This study uses longitudinal data from Berea College to show how students' beliefs impact choice of major.

(1) To characterize initial beliefs about major-specific factors; (2) to describe the degree to which beliefs about majors change during college; (3) to examine the determinants of these belief changes; and (4) to describe which beliefs are consistent with observed student performance and future income.


Students' Initial College Expectations

  • Students are overoptimistic about the probability that they will graduate. Entering freshman students assign a probability of 13% to dropping out while 37.5% actually do not finish a college degree.
  • One in five students stated their belief that science would be their selected major, but only one in 14 students graduated with a science-related credential.
  • Students who chose majors other than science were too optimistic about the probability that they will change to a science major sometime in college.

How Do Students' Beliefs & Expectations Change?

  • When students make a decision on their major, or when an institutional policy requires the declaration of a major, students are most likely to estimate the utility of a degree program based on observed or projected performance (as measured by GPA) and future income.  Uncertainty about future performance or income could create a mismatch between students' ability and ultimate selection of a major.
  • Initial beliefs are tempered by experience in courses and in a broader major program.  Usually by the middle of the second year, students have strengthened the match between their major choice and the degree program from which they ultimately graduate.  After three semesters, 90% of students who eventually graduated with a science credential had indicated their chosen major would be science.
  • An important intervening variable is future income expectations. As a subgroup, science majors were more likely to express a comparative advantage in future income than their counterparts in seven other major groupings.

Policy Implications/Recommendations:
  • Students are very optimistic about science at college entrance, but the much lower rate of degree completion in math and science fields raises an important possibility: that is, what students learn after they enroll in college can have more effect on their choice of major.  Understanding more about how students' expectations change as they navigate through college could improve policies related to timing and selection of degree program.
  • Students who choose to "experiment" in science may do so because of perceived ability or future income returns. Even if students do not ultimately remain in science majors, state policymakers and local institutional leaders should consider ways to provide direct support for students that are unsure about but interested in majoring in STEM fields.
  • Institutional rules that delay declaration of a major could improve experimentation, but students might find several incentives to make an early decision, realizing that vacillating between majors can increase the time it takes to complete a college credential.
  • The differences in expectations and observed performance between science and other majors suggest that it may be possible to model student decisions based on whether students choose a STEM or non-STEM major. States and institutions could examine patterns of major choice as variables through which they could more fully understand how student characteristics (e.g., race, family income, academic preparation, career interest) impact degree completion and dropout. 

Research Design:
Survey maintained frequent contact with students: 12 times each year while still in enrolled in school and annually thereafter. Multivariate regression equations matched initial and changing expectations about choice of majors with actual student behaviors.

Data from the Berea Panel Study, a student longitudinal survey at Berea College that was initiated to allow an in-depth study of a variety of higher education decisions and outcomes. The study cites data from the first two (i.e., 2000 and 2001) survey cohorts.

Year data is from:


Data Collection and Analysis:
The combination of student unit record data and intensive surveys allow for the matching of students' expectations with eight outcomes, including choice of and persistence in major, degree completion, and perceptions of after-college earnings. This study can be accessed through the following link: http://www.nber.org/papers/w19165


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