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Twelve Things Parents Should Know About College Majors

Parents shouldn’t think too far ahead when it comes to their kids’ educations.

Parents can get way ahead of themselves when contemplating their children’s college education. Shocking, I know.

I’ve run across plenty of parents who worry about what schools their children should attend since they expect them to continue their education beyond a bachelor’s degree. They assume that their children will attend law school, medical school or obtain a graduate degree.

Not surprisingly, these parents also worry about how they are going to potentially pay the tab for all the extra years of education.

Here’s my advice to these stressed-out parents:

Rather than mapping the educational path of their children so far out, parents should focus on the more immediate need of obtaining a bachelor’s degree.

Think about it. How many teenagers really know what their career aspirations will be when they are 23 or 24?

Here are 12 realities to think about as parents make assumptions regarding their children’s college years:

  1. Majors change. Often. According to the U.S. Department of Education, about 33 percent of undergrads change their academic major at four-year colleges. About one in nine students pursuing a bachelor’s degree changes their major twice. 
  2. Kids hate math. Federal statistics indicate that students aiming for mathematics degrees are the most likely to abandon their original major. Fifty-two percent of math majors switched. At 40 percent, students planning to major in the natural sciences, which include physics, chemistry, biology and geology, were the next most likely to ditch their original major.
  3. Community college students are slightly more decisive. Among community college students, 28 percent change their major at least once.
  4. Students often don’t know enough to select a major. Teenagers aren’t exposed to many academic disciplines in high school, such as anthropology, philosophy, sociology, nursing and many foreign languages. Because of this reality, it’s understandable that smart teens aim for medicine and law careers that are well-known and high-status. 
  5. College is tough. It’s common for teenagers to fail to appreciate how hard some subjects can be. What can surprise teenagers and their parents is that high school subjects that they may excel in can bear little resemblance to college work. The road is especially rocky for students who want to major in a STEM field (science, technology, engineering and math.) 
  6. Changing majors isn’t necessarily a problem. A 2016 study suggests that students who change majors actually graduate at slightly higher rates than those who don’t. 
  7. Timing is everything. When researching colleges, families should be sure to ask when a student must declare an academic major. Universities can routinely require that students declare a major when completing their college application.
  8. Know the rules. Equally important, students need to understand how easy or difficult it will be to switch majors. During a tour I took with college consultants visiting Columbia University a few years ago, the tour guide told us that he had started as an engineering major but decided he really wanted to major in psychology. He said the process required him to apply for that new major—it was almost like applying to the university all over again—and there was no guarantee of success.
  9. Smaller schools offer more leeway. Liberal arts colleges are more likely than universities to allow students to explore their interests prior to declaring a major, which these schools typically require before the beginning of students’ junior year in college.
  10. Double majoring may be a trap. If a teenager is interested in double majoring, it’s important to find out whether it’s possible to do this and, if so, whether it can be accomplished in the traditional four years. Sometimes it can be better to major in one discipline if double majoring would require an additional year. An alternative would be to obtain a master’s degree during that fifth year.
  11. Don’t count your chickens. While some parents and teens are strategizing about future college degrees, the reality is that an alarming number of students never even obtain a bachelor’s degree. According to federal statistics, the six-year graduation rate is 59 percent at public institutions and 66 percent at private nonprofit institutions. Among those who graduate with a bachelor’s degree, it takes an average of 5.3 years to do so.
  12. Run the numbers. To gauge graduation prospects, families should use an excellent reality check tool from Educate To Career, which is a nonprofit that provides a variety of tools for college and career planning.

ETC’s College Graduation Probability Program determines if a student is academically equipped to graduate in a particular major. The tool shares the percentage chance of a child graduating with a specific major at an in-state public university in five years.

The calculation is based on such factors as the child’s state of residence, grade point average and often the GPA of a relevant subject. For instance, the tool asks for the GPA range in math for a student wanting to major in engineering and the English GPA of a student hoping to major in English or a foreign language.

I’d suggest you recommend using this tool to your clients. They may be shocked at the results.


Lynn O’Shaughnessy, a nationally recognized college expert, offers an online course—Savvy College Planningexclusively for financial advisors. Click here to get Lynn’s guide, Finding the Most Generous Colleges.

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