New Survey Finds Most College Grads Would Change Majors
Published on February 27, 2020
- Over 82% of degree holders think college was a good financial investment
- Despite this, 61% of college grads would change their majors if they could go back
- Around 26% of all degree holders would change majors to pursue their passions
- Roughly 30% of millennials would change majors for better job opportunities
Choosing a major is one of the most important milestones in college, and it’s a decision that will influence every student’s career trajectory — for better or worse. But what if, with the benefit of hindsight, you could go back and change your college major? Would you do it, and why?
A new survey from BestColleges sought to answer these questions and reveals how college graduates feel about their choice of major. Despite 82% of respondents reporting that college was a “good financial investment,” 61% said they would change their undergraduate studies if they could go back.
[If] schools help students align their majors with their ideal career paths — rather than just emphasizing graduating on time — it could improve overall satisfaction in the major.
Conducted through YouGov, the BestColleges survey consisted of 817 college graduates from around the country and from a variety of demographic groups; all respondents reported having at least a bachelor’s degree.
In general, changing majors while in college is associated with additional time and money spent on education, leading many schools to emphasize graduating students within a standard time frame.
However, the BestColleges survey indicates that if schools help students align their majors with their ideal career paths — rather than just emphasizing graduating on time — it could improve overall satisfaction in the major. A 2015 study also supports the importance of career awareness when it comes to increasing a student’s satisfaction with their major.
Why Do College Grads Want to Change Their Majors?
Among the graduates surveyed, the most popular reason for wanting to change majors was “I want to pursue my passion.” This suggests that while many college graduates are happy with their decision to get a degree, they may want something more from their education.
Quinn Tomlin, the public relations manager at BestColleges, helped shed some light on these findings. “People have complex motivations and assess value differently,” she said. “It could be that most graduates see the benefit of a college education in general, but their particular major didn’t end up checking all the boxes when it came to landing a fulfilling career.”
Moreover, many college students pursue their majors for reasons unrelated to personal fulfillment. They may place more importance on economic considerations, such as income potential or job availability, compared to their passion for a given subject.
And of course, college students tend to be younger and may not know what their passion is, making it hard for them to choose the right major. In fact, only 14% of millennials (ages 24-39) were concerned with their life’s passion compared to 34% of adults ages 40 and older, suggesting that older adults tend to think more about purpose and fulfillment in their careers.
|Millennials (24-39)||Gen X (40-55)||Boomers (56-74)||Silent (75+)|
|I want better/more job opportunities||30.68%||26.46%||18.60%||14.38%|
|I want better compensation or benefits||18.34%||11.31%||13.52%||5.11%|
|I am personally dissatisfied with or stress/burned out in my current career||13.93%||10.30%||5.37%||11.00%|
|I want to learn in-demand skills||18.16%||9.04%||11.77%||4.86%|
|I want to pursue my passion||14.08%||35.03%||32.96%||34.92%|
“It’s interesting that some older respondents see changing their college degree as a potential gateway to their life’s passion,” Tomlin said. “And this may be one reason we see more nontraditional students choosing to enroll or re-enroll in college later in life — to switch careers or to study something personally enriching.”
Compared to older adults, millennials were more likely to want to change majors to have better job prospects, to earn better compensation/benefits, or to learn in-demand skills. For example, 31% of millennials chose “I want better/more job opportunities” compared to 26% of Gen Xers (ages 40-55) and 19% of baby boomers (ages 56-74).
Among the graduates surveyed, the most popular reason for wanting to change majors was “I want to pursue my passion.”
This result isn’t surprising. Younger Americans may be more concerned with wages, benefits, and in-demand skills because they are having a harder time making it in the workforce compared to older generations. Real wages are stagnant and the costs of college, housing, and healthcare have all risen astronomically in the last few decades. Research has also found that millennials are worse off in terms of wealth and personal income compared to their parents at the same age.
Tomlin continued: “The fact that most grads would switch majors in the first place is a useful finding because it indicates that colleges could do a better job of matching student expectations with career outcomes and the realities of today’s workforce. And what does a good career mean? How can we help students identify variables that really lead to a rewarding career?”
A 2019 study in The Review of Higher Education supports this assessment. Results show how important it is for colleges to help students align their major with their career trajectories early on, rather than emphasizing only “high-impact” educational practices like first-year seminars or undergraduate research projects that aren’t necessarily linked with early-career outcomes.
The Most Valuable Benefits of College
While it’s hard to say exactly what makes a career rewarding, the BestColleges survey does give us a place to start. We asked college graduates about the most valuable benefit of their education — regardless of whether they’d switch majors.
Only 5% of graduates said their education had no value at all. Graduates across all categories listed the following three options as the most valuable benefits of college: soft skills (40%), personal enrichment or life experience (22%), and hard skills (17%).
It’s understandable why graduates were split on the most valuable skills gained from their degrees. Soft skills are generally considered to involve areas like creativity, critical thinking, and communication — abilities honed in the study of liberal arts and the social sciences. By comparison, hard skills are more measurable and teachable and include many STEM-oriented skills like coding or technical know-how.
Out of all the categories, graduates with degrees in liberal arts, languages, or social sciences were the most likely to rate soft skills as the most valuable benefit of college. Over 62% of them chose this response — a much higher number than for other majors.
[Graduates] listed the following three options as the most valuable benefits of college: soft skills (40%), personal enrichment or life experience (22%), and hard skills (17%)
Interestingly, after hard skills, 27% of STEM respondents rated soft skills as the most valuable benefit of their degrees. This indicates that a college education in general — or perhaps aspects of a STEM education — may prepare graduates well in areas such as critical thinking and communication.
What graduates didn’t find valuable about their education was equally insightful. Less than 1% of liberal arts and social science majors, as well as low numbers of graduates from most other disciplines, found "a professional network to call on" to be the most valuable benefit of college. Only 4% of all graduates chose this response.
This could mean graduates aren’t taking advantage of alumni resources, that colleges aren’t doing a good job at providing them, or that these resources simply aren’t considered as valuable compared to other categories.
Regarding some other less tangible benefits of college, like a school’s prestige, respondents across the board did not rate these qualities as a valuable benefit of their education. Just under 6% of graduates chose this option.
Where Colleges Can Improve
Overall, the survey responses suggest graduates are successfully leveraging the skills and knowledge they gain in college, and another survey finding backs up this assessment: Nearly 79% of all degree holders said the skills they learned in college were helpful in their current jobs.
While most respondents found college beneficial, the survey also revealed some important demographic differences. For example, women were slightly less likely than men to consider college a good financial investment. In addition, if you exclude nursing and healthcare, men were twice as likely as women to have studied STEM fields along with business, marketing, and finance.
|Science / Mathematics / Engineering||16.60%||22.69%||11.10%|
|Nursing / Healthcare||7.76%||5.74%||9.59%|
|Fine Arts / Design / Music / Performance||6.42%||5.26%||7.48%|
|Liberal Arts / Languages / Social Sciences||28.18%||22.72%||33.12%|
|Computer Science / Programming / Information Technology||6.85%||9.47%||4.47%|
|Business / Marketing / Finance||17.86%||24.06%||12.25%|
|Communication / Journalism / Media Studies||6.07%||4.00%||7.94%|
|Education / Teaching||10.26%||6.07%||14.05%|
However, it should be noted that respondents included recent college graduates as well as adults ages 55 and older, meaning the survey is not a measure of the current number of women pursuing these fields. More recent efforts to increase gender parity in STEM — such as K-12 programs that encourage girls and young women to study these fields — aren’t necessarily reflected in this survey.
Income level was also predictive of whether someone thought college was a good financial investment. Of the graduates making over $80,000 a year, over 86% agreed that college was a good financial investment compared to around 80% of those earning $40,000-$80,000 a year and around 74% earning under $40,000 a year.
When considering the ages of graduates, there may be an opportunity for deeper reflection. For example, baby boomers (ages 56-74) were more likely to think college gave them useful skills and that it was a good financial investment, particularly compared to millennials (ages 24-39).
The fact that fewer young adult respondents felt college gave them useful skills echoes other studies that conclude recent college graduates have low “career readiness,” meaning they are less prepared for today’s workforce when it comes to qualities like professionalism and work ethic.
Similarly, the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that executives and hiring managers think only 60% of college graduates are prepared for entry-level roles; only a quarter of hiring managers believe graduates have the skills and knowledge to advance in their jobs.
“Overall, our data also points to areas where colleges can continue to improve,” Tomlin said. “Whether that means increasing gender parity in STEM fields or equipping college grads with job readiness and skills they can actually use in the workplace.”
If you need help finding the right college major the first time, read our Student's Guide to Choosing a Major.
BestColleges commissioned YouGov PLC to conduct the survey. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov PLC. The total sample size was 817 adults with at least a four-year college degree. Fieldwork was undertaken January 22-24, 2020. The survey was carried out online and meets rigorous quality standards. It employed a non-probability-based sample using both quotas upfront during collection and then a weighting scheme on the back end designed and proven to provide nationally representative results.