A new study suggests U.S. college students who change their majors may be more likely to graduate.
Only 60 percent of students seeking a bachelor’s degree at an American college or university finish their study program within six years, according to the United States Department of Education.
The new study, which looks at full-time students who attended a four-year college or university for the first time in 2008, finds that 60 percent of them completed their degree program by 2014.
Experts say there are many reasons why this number is so low. But many schools are looking for ways to increase the graduation rate.
For example, every American college or university requires students to identify the main subject, or “major,” of their studies. After all their requirements have been met, students receive their degree in that major.
Declaring a major
Some universities require individuals to declare a major at the beginning of their studies. Other schools let students wait until their second year. Changing majors is also acceptable. But some experts argue against changing majors. They note it may cause students to take more time to complete their degree program.
However, the new study suggests that students who change majors are more likely to graduate.
The Education Advisory Board (EAB), which studies higher education and tries to help American colleges and universities make improvements, based its conclusions on information gathered from over 78,000 college students. It looked at the graduation rate of students who changed majors within the first four years of study. On average, their graduation rate was between about four to six percent higher than students who never changed majors.
The report also suggests that changing majors within the first three years of study has little to no effect on the average time it takes students to complete their degree.
EAB Senior Director Ed Venit would not comment on whether or not college students should change major, but said that about 80 percent of students do change at some point.
Venit also said it is not completely clear why changing majors might help students. But he thinks some people become more invested in their studies once they have had time to decide what they truly want to do.
"Students who chose a major early on: maybe they didn’t have full information about what they wanted to do. Maybe they just picked something that felt familiar … or their parents pushed them to something, whatever it might be. But maybe they didn’t make a full choice early on," Venit said. "Those students were only, perhaps … just kind of attached to their major, versus students who either wait and explore a little bit longer or have declared something, explored further and found something else that they like even better."
Venit added that the Department of Education’s graduation rate information is not completely correct. It only includes the rates for students studying for the first time — not for those who have changed schools. These students represent about 40 percent of the university population across the United States.
The real 6-year graduation rate is only between 53 and 55 percent, Venit said. He said that it is difficult to understand why the rate is so low. Some students leave school because of poor academic performance. Others leave because they lack the money to pay for their schooling. And others leave because they feel they are not getting enough in return for the high cost of higher education.
Low graduation rates
No matter the reason, Venit said, this is the biggest and most complex problem facing higher education.
Yet, some schools try anything they can to make their students’ experiences as successful as possible.
Carleton College, a private institution in the northern state of Minnesota, has about 2,000 students. The 4-year graduation rate of students who began studying there in 2009 was 91 percent.
George Shuffelton, associate dean at Carleton College, said students only choose to attend the college if they are willing to commit a great deal of effort to their studies.
But, he adds, the Carleton community has students from every part of the country as well as other countries. And they all do what they can to support each other.
"Students here don’t tend to see college as a competition," he said. "They tend to help each other and support each other, and that makes a real difference. And then also, we try to create a culture where it’s okay to ask for help."
Shuffelton said Carleton College also works to make sure its students graduate. Like most universities, members of the faculty act as academic advisors to students.
Shuffelton noted that Carleton’s small class sizes provide students with a more personal experience. Most faculty members are also full-time employees. This means they are more able to give support to the success of the school and their students, Shuffelton said.
Other schools are exploring other, more unusual methods to help students graduate.
When students declares their major, they usually choose a subject such as history or mathematics. Oftentimes, students choose a major because they believe it will lead to a career path.
Susan Burleson, vice-president of student success and communications at Davidson County Community College in North Carolina, thinks students often have little idea of what that path requires or where it will take them when they start college.
"It is not developmentally normal or common or necessarily appropriate to know what you want to be at the age of 18," Burleson said. "It is a time, developmentally, when you should be exploring who you are and what you want to be some day."
Years ago officials at Davidson began noticing students would choose a major because of what they thought they knew about the field. But in many cases, some students felt they had made the wrong choice and wasted time, money and effort. These students would then often leave school without completing a degree program.
Then the college decided to start using a program called “meta-majors” in 2013. Meta-majors are programs in which students choose a general subject like computer science at the beginning of their studies. As the student progresses through their studies, they learn more about specific areas of interest in that field.
For example, a Davidson student in the computer science meta-major program can choose classes that relate to cyber security or information technology. Then the student can choose more classes which relate to their interests. After two years, they then complete an associate’s degree relating specifically to their interests.
Meta-majors are becoming more popular across the country, and are available at schools in Florida, Arizona and Washington State.
Burleson said it is still early days in the program at Davidson. The school only offers meta-majors in computer science and business. But she hopes to expand the program to other subjects soon.
Burleson added that traditional education paths do not work for everyone and new methods may help more students graduate.
This story was originally reported by VOA's Learning English service.