The Developmental Disconnect in Choosing a Major: Why Institutions Should Prohibit Choice until Second Year

Liz Freedman
Butler University

Volume: 15
Article first published online: June 28, 2013
DOI: 10.26209/MJ1561278

Keywords: choice; choosing; developmental; disconnect; major


E. St. John said, “There is, perhaps, no college decision that is more thought-provoking, gut wrenching and rest-of-your-life oriented—or disoriented—than the choice of a major” (St. John, 2000, p. 22). This idea exemplifies the fact that choosing a major is a choice that should be intentional and based on knowledge of one’s self, and when the wrong choice is made, the implications can be harsh. Ideally, a major will leave a student academically successful, as well as fulfill academic, personal, and vocational goals. College and university administrators have begun implementing various types of institutional resources to assist undecided students when choosing a major, but all students are likely underprepared when choosing a major. Therefore, due to the potential positive or negative impact the choice of major can have on the student experience, it is imperative for institutions to delay major choice until the second year, when students are more developmentally ready and educationally prepared to make an effective choice.

Facts and figures

An estimated 20 to 50 percent of students enter college as “undecided” (Gordon, 1995) and an estimated 75 percent of students change their major at least once before graduation (Gordon, 1995). When looking at the statistics, it is obvious that choosing a major has serious implications for the majority of students, not just undecided ones. It is also important to note that “decided” students are not necessarily basing their decision of major on factual research and self-reflection. According to a College Student Journal survey of more than 800 students who were asked to elaborate on their career decision-making process, factors that played a role included a general interest the student had in the subject he or she chose; family and peer influence; and assumptions about introductory courses, potential job characteristics, and characteristics of the major (Beggs, Bantham, & Taylor, 2008, p. 382). While these may be valid factors to a degree, the study ultimately implied that students are choosing a major based on influence and assumption rather than through an understanding of their own personal goals and values. Lastly, the choice of major can have a significant positive or negative effect on the student experience, affecting retention, engagement, student learning, academic standing, setting of academic and career goals, and more. For example, in a 2006 Canadian study, researchers followed 80,574 students in eighty-seven colleges during a five-year period and showed that good grades are related to having a major close to one’s personality. Most impressively, they found that congruence predicted overall grade-point average (GPA) after five years better than ACT scores (Jones, 2012).

The development of traditional first-year students

In contrast with the evidence that first-year students are most likely making uninformed choices when determining a major, the common four-year curriculum path colleges and universities use assumes that students enter college prepared to make a decision regarding major and, ultimately, career path. Unfortunately, the reality is that students are most likely not developmentally prepared to do so. According to Perry’s student development stages, students in their first year will experience dualism, in which the world around them is made up of dichotomies (good vs. bad, right vs. wrong, yes vs. no, etc.). Students in this stage believe there is one right answer for everything, including the choice of major (Evans, Forney, Guido, Patton, & Renn, 2010). Dualistic students believe there is one “right” major for them, and they tend to look to others for the answer (adviser, parents, peers, and faculty) rather than draw conclusions based on their own research, personal goals, and self-reflection. First-year students are still attempting to understand their own identity and, having lived a majority of their lives under someone else’s guidance, they may not yet be able to come to legitimate conclusions about themselves. This raises the question, without knowing one’s self, how can one effectively choose a major?

Since they are in the dualistic stage of development, first-year students also need assistance navigating a decision-making process. According to Tiedeman’s approach to decision making, these students will begin college in the exploration stage, considering random, exploratory options (as cited in Harren, 1976). Little to no progress is made toward a choice, because knowledge of one’s self and the professional world are needed but not yet understood, and students may feel anxiety about making life choices. Since incoming students are both dualistic and in the exploratory process of decision making, they may not yet be developmentally ready to make important life decisions without a structured period of self-reflection, learning, and growth. When making decisions independently or based on the opinions of those with whom they have a personal relationship, such as family members, students will most likely make an uneducated, unrelated, and ineffective decision not based on their true personal goals, interests, and values.

The disconnect

Most students will not be developmentally ready to make effective decisions based on identity and self-reflection, such as choosing a major. If we look again at Perry’s stages of development, the earliest point at which students may be able to effectively choose a major is not until the stage of multiplicity (Evans et al., 2010). Multiplicity signifies the ability to recognize that various options exist when one right answer is not known. In this stage the student may be ready to narrow their major preferences, but it may not be until even further in development (the relativism stage) that students can truly begin deciding based on what they know about themselves. Furthermore, Tiedeman’s decision-making process argues that after the exploratory phase is the crystallization period (as cited in Harren, 1976). Here the student can begin making progress toward a decision but does not actually make one. For example, the student can effectively begin weighing the advantages and disadvantages of a particular decision, consider other alternatives, and understand some of the consequences of these alternatives. Clearly, there is a serious disconnect between where traditional freshmen students are developmentally and the level of development needed to make a successful choice in major. If choosing a major actually means choosing one’s goals, values, and interests based on intentional self-reflection and understanding of one’s self, then first-year students simply are not ready.


Fortunately, it is not all bad news; there are practical solutions to address this inherent disconnect, including implementing first-year programs, summer programs, career assessments, and exploratory workshops. Moreover, using positive advising techniques and encouraging changes in campus culture would be effective. Specifically, these enhancements include the use of appreciative advising, which is asking positive, open-ended questions when helping students consider goals, passions, and interests—all of which are vital aspects of major choice (Bloom, 2008). Additionally, changing the terminology we use about pre-major students from “undecided” to “exploratory” students or something similar would ensure a more positive connotation rather than one that implies indecisiveness.

While these are all realistic options for colleges and universities to implement, they are only short-term solutions and often do not assist decided students who are most likely not developmentally ready or are unprepared to effectively make this decision as well. Therefore, truly assisting students make well-informed life choices will require systemic changes in institutional structures and processes. Ultimately, prohibiting major choice until the sophomore year is the most responsible option. To do this, there would need to be a structured course or program during the first year, and a total intake academic advising model should be incorporated in which students in their first year receive advising from an objective, central advising office and it is not until the second year that students will be advised within a specific academic discipline, such as with a faculty adviser (King, 2008). A structure such as this may offer first-year students career assessments, personal research opportunities in areas of study, job shadow experiences, informational interviewing guidance, personal reflections writing, upper-level classes observations, and  faculty interviewing. In the case of Waynesburg University, first-year students can delay the declaration of a major through the Major Decision Program; part of this process includes a Career and Life Planning course, as well as Discover, a computer program that allows students to learn more about possible majors, career paths, and their personal preferences (Waynesburg University, n.d.).


There are many challenges to implementing a system in which students delay major choice until the sophomore year. Funding would be needed to change advising structures, including updated physical environments for institutions in which a total intake advising model is not currently utilized. Furthermore, it takes time and effort to make even the slightest change in campus culture. This is partially due to the fact that administration, faculty, staff, and every department on campus would have to be willing to adapt to an institutional change. Lastly, there is a small possibility that these changes would not apply to all students, who may be developmentally prepared to make the decision before entering college. Although there are few students statistically in this category, those who do may perceive the first year as a misuse of time.

Despite these challenges, school administrators must decide where the priorities are. As shown by the statistics previously mentioned, the current timing of choosing a major negatively affects a majority of students. It would be difficult to implement such great institutional changes, but not doing so might constitute a disservice to the student body. Furthermore, a structured freshman year that focuses on student exploration and deliberation will provide the student with tools and skills useful for long-term application, including the inevitable job search and other higher-level personal decisions. Therefore, even those students who are developmentally ready to choose a major before or in the first year of school will still benefit from undergoing a structured period of self-reflection. Ultimately, a student who makes a more informed major decision in his or her second year of school based on personal goals and values will be more engaged in the college experience and more successful academically, personally, and professionally.


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St. John, E. (2000, April 13). Majors. Black Issues In Higher Education. pp. 21–27.

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Liz Freedman is the student employment coordinator for Internship and Career Services at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. She can be reached at