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What major switching can tell us about student outcomes

May 21, 2014

As a member of the Student Success Collaborative, you benefit from an army of support: researchers, consultants, and higher education experts, to name a few. But are you familiar with the work of our Data Science Team?

We recently asked this team—dedicated to building analytical tools and unlocking student success insights—to explain what they do and showcase their recent work on major switching.

Richard Staley: What does a data scientist do?

Data Science Team: Our job is to find needle-in-the-haystack insights. We sift through multiple, disparate sources of member data to uncover actionable areas of opportunity. To do this, we partner with researchers and consultants to define our members’ most pressing problems. One topic we’re passionate about is how the action and timing of major declaration and major switching impacts student success.

RS: Why major switching? What about this topic attracts you?

DST: Declaring a major is an important milestone in every student’s undergraduate career. The decision triggers a defined pathway to graduation. However, a student’s first choice isn’t always active, informed, perfect, or final. Many declare multiple majors, and there are plenty of resources to help them find the right fit.

But how much do we know about the downstream effects of major declarations and switches on graduation outcomes? Using analytics to better understand these pathways is something our team continues to explore.

Related post: How can you use first-year GPA to target advising efforts?

RS: What did your analysis of major switching reveal?

DST:We pulled data from 41 member institutions to conduct an in-depth analysis of 401,314 first-time, full-time students from 2000-2008. Our analysis revealed—as illustrated in the chart below—that students who declare a new major after the fifth term are not only more likely to take more time to graduate, but their likelihood of graduating within six years diminishes compared to all other retained students.

*Last new major declaration throughout this post is defined as the last time a major was declared, which can include the first major declaration (if also the last) or last time major switch; it does not include double-major declaration.

What is perhaps most startling about this is that 11% of all students are making their last major declaration after their fifth term. This is not a small or isolated problem. Late major switching signals a substantial—yet addressable—barrier to degree completion.

Time to Degree by Term of First Major Declared

Time to degree by term of first major declared

RS: What should schools do about this problem?

DST: The solution is not simply to change major declaration policies on campuses. Rather than forcing students to declare by a certain term, we encourage members to consider why so many students are exhibiting this behavior. There are a myriad of reasons why students (perhaps on your own campus) could be declaring so late:

  • Are students forced to change majors after failing to gain admission to pre-professional programs (e.g. nursing)?
  • Are students switching majors after struggling in challenging programs?
  • Are students required to declare so early that they often change their minds later?
  • Are they not given the help they need to find their way?

Are these things happening on your campus? The answers to these types of questions will dictate the next course of action. Data can help diagnose patterns, but it’s the combination of data, best practices, and leadership that will help schools capitalize on the opportunities hidden in major declaration and migration patterns.

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