Changing majors is a major decision

Illustration by Olivia Madrzyk | The Signal

With most colleges offering hundreds of degree programs, it is no surprise that 80% of college students change their major at least once. Changing one’s major can be an exciting opportunity for some students to pursue a newfound passion or career they may not have considered before. 

For others, changing their major can feel like falling into a pit of massive debt. When a student changes their major, it reduces access to financial aid and may cause some to have credits that do not count toward their new degree. 

Depending on the degree program a student switches to, changing majors can almost cause them to restart their degree program. While most students are willing to put in the extra time, many cannot afford the tuition required to switch programs. 

“If you encounter a student with over $50,000 in debt, you will usually find that the student transferred majors or schools, or both,” said Bob Hildreth, the Founder of Inversant, a college access and financial program for low-income families. “If you switch majors once or twice,” he added, “you may end up with a lot more student debt.”

This debt frequently emerges from reduced access to scholarships. The Pell Grant and HOPE Scholarship, two crucial programs for many Georgia State students, are time-based. If students use up all of their lifetime Pell Grant or HOPE Scholarship awards due to needing to take more classes than initially planned, they will have to pay their remaining tuition out of pocket. 

The average four-year student ends up with 17 unused credits, but that number can skyrocket if a student decides to switch majors. As an example, suppose a student changes their major from Biology to English. They may need to take multiple semesters worth of English credits while having 20 Biology credits that don’t apply to their degree.

Georgia State offers over 250 majors, minors, and various other programs. Inevitably, some students will confidently check off one box on their application, only to change their minds about what they are studying later in their college career. This curiosity is a normal part of the college process. 

“Students [should be able] to take risks in learning without penalties,” Bob Hildreth said regarding the subject. “Do we really want to penalize students for these very qualities we should be encouraging?”

In a survey conducted of college graduates, 61% reported they would have picked a different major if they could go back. Georgia State seeks to combat these problems with its meta majors and Freshman Learning Community programs. Georgia State defines meta majors as a larger group of common academic interests grouped under one banner. For example, Biology and Chemistry are both majors under the greater meta major of Natural Sciences. 

After selecting a meta major, students take courses related to their broader category but do not select a specialization until later. Georgia State has designed these programs to help students pick a pathway to graduation while still allowing them room to explore. It also ensures students take classes that will count towards their graduation no matter what major they ultimately choose.

“Requiring all students to choose a meta major puts students on a path that should allow flexibility in future specialization while ensuring their early course credits will count towards their final majors,” Georgia State’s meta majors website states. “meta majors provide clarity and direction in what would otherwise be a confusing and unstructured registration process.”

Georgia State’s meta major program does not just offer a cushion for those who change their major; it discourages students from changing it in the first place. After Georgia State implemented the meta majors program, it saw a 30% reduction in the rate of students changing their majors. Freshman Learning Communities also increased retention and graduation rates by 4%.

“Organizing all students into academic focus areas can help build a supportive community among students, boost their grades and reduce the number of unrelated courses for student’s degree requirements,” said Jennifer Lee, a senior policy analyst for higher education at the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute. 

“For example, first-year students at Georgia State University who participate in Freshman Learning Communities, small student cohorts with the same focus area and schedule, earn higher grades and are more likely to continue to their second year than students who do not.”

Education experts such as David Ross, the former CEO of the Partnership for 21st Century Learning and Global Education Consultant, praised Georgia State’s meta majors program’s positive impact on graduation rates.

“My children are prime examples of the importance of support networks and effective mentors. They are carving their pathway, but they have road maps, field guides, and camp counselors to help them along the way,” Ross said. “This should be the case for all students, [and] because of the Guided Pathways and meta majors programs [that] community colleges and four-year universities [are adopting], we are beginning to see the broad-scale benefits of such support.”

Other colleges around the country are taking similar approaches to increase graduation rates and decrease the number of students changing their majors. 

The University of Colorado Boulder, for example, offers a Program in Exploratory Studies in which students receive personalized advising sessions to help them decide on a path they are happy to stay on until graduation. Chestnut Hill College implemented a voluntary program where students can speak with advisors weekly to discuss their majors and future careers to help them finalize their decisions. 

Programs that increase graduation rates and decrease the rate of students changing their major result in students wasting less money, spending time on new courses, and having more confidence in their career decisions

With more low-income students attending college than ever while federal aid often being unable to support them, struggling students need the direct path to graduation offered by meta majors. Otherwise, many who want to explore new pathways might have to decide between dropping out or taking out student loans with hefty interest rates.

“The need is clear. A solution is evident,” Ross said. “It’s time for all learners to take a walk along a Guided Pathway toward their future of work and community engagement.”