Choosing the wrong academic major

(MoneyWatch) The academic majors that high school students intend to pursue in college often don’t match up with their interests and strengths, according to a new study by ACT Inc., the testing company.

About 79 percent of students who recently took the ACT expressed a preference for their future major on their testing day. Nearly a third of the test takers, however, later selected majors in disciplines that did not mesh with their stated academic interests. Just 36 percent selected a major that represented a good fit with their interests.

For both genders, larger shares of students with planned majors in biology and physical sciences, visual and performing arts, English and foreign languages had solid matches. The percentage of students whose interests matched their desire to major in biology or the physical sciences, for instance, was 54 percent of women and 58 percent for men.  In contrast, just 23 percent of females and 30 percent of males, who expressed interest in computer science or mathematics, selected a solid fit.  For future business majors, the match numbers were 39 percent (women) and 37 percent (men.)

Hazards of Academic Mismatching

Academic major mismatching is a problem because students who pursue the wrong fields can undermine their college success. The study noted that “research at the ACT and elsewhere suggest that if students’ measured interests are similar to the interest of people in their chosen college majors, they will be more likely to remain in their major, persist in college and complete a college degree in a timely manner.”

Among students who had selected a major, 41 percent indicated they were sure of their choice with 45 percent saying they were fairly sure and 15 percent expressed some uncertainty. Interestingly, the percentage of students who expressed great confidence in their choice of major declined as their parents’ education level increased. Thirty percent of males and 36 percent of females, whose parents have graduate degrees, said they were “very sure” of their planned major choice. For students, whose parents didn't go to college, those percentages climbed to 45 percent (males) and 51 percent (females.)

While many students appeared to be picking majors that weren't aligned with their interests, a large percentage of teenagers are selecting schools based on the availability of their favored major.  Fifty-five percent of young men and 56 percent of young women, who were very sure about their intended college plans, said that the most important factor in choosing a college was the availability of their major.

When they registered for the ACT, 61 percent of females and 62 percent of males said they needed assistance in helping with their future educational plans. With high school counselors swamped, it's unlikely that many of these students will receive the help they'd like.