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Supporting College Students in Choosing Majors — May 2021


Could you provide research on particular supports/advising for college undergraduates in choosing their majors?


Following an established REL West research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and resources on supports for college undergraduates in choosing their majors. The sources we searched included ERIC, Google Scholar, and PsychInfo. (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your reference. Also, we searched for references through the most commonly used sources of research, but the list is not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. Access to the full articles is free unless indicated otherwise.

Research References

Baker, V. L., & Griffin, K. A. (2010). Beyond mentoring and advising: Toward understanding the role of faculty “developers” in student success. About Campus, 14(6), 2–8. Abstract available from and full text available for a fee from

From the abstract: “The goals of this essay are to shed light on the importance of faculty-student (or staff-student) relationships to student success and to describe the various faculty or staff roles that are available to help students succeed. Students rely on the support of faculty advisors and mentors to help them navigate their undergraduate experiences. Now a new role, developer, has emerged, and the authors argue that all three relationships are necessary and vital to student development and learning at the undergraduate level and beyond. While each role is of critical importance, the authors reinforce their call to students, faculty, and staff to attend to the different forms of relationships in which they can engage, choosing the type of relationship that best meets their needs, interests, and abilities. This small but crucial step can result in greater benefits and fewer frustrations as faculty, staff, and students work together.”

Cruz, J., & Kellam, N. (2018). Beginning an engineer’s journey: A narrative examination of how, when, and why students choose the engineering major. Journal of Engineering Education, 107(4), 556–582. Abstract available from and full text available for a fee from

From the abstract: “The purpose of this paper is to gain a better understanding of how engineering students enter the engineering field by comparing commonalities across their experiences. Given recent literature that describes student dissatisfaction toward, misinformation about, and attrition in engineering programs, we explore the lived experiences of students entering the engineering field, with a particular focus on students changing their majors to engineering. This paper synthesizes the stories of 21 undergraduate engineering students from a southeastern research university, 15 of whom began their undergraduate program in other majors and transferred into engineering. We employ a unique narrative structuralizing scheme based on Campbell’s hero’s journey and use the metaphor of the beginning of the journey to understand student trajectories that locate students in engineering studies. With this information, we can better understand student conceptions of the engineering field when they enter; who enters the engineering field and why; how students’ expectations are met or not in engineering programs; and what are the factors that ultimately contribute to first-year retention in engineering programs. In general, students entering engineering tend to have a limited understanding of what is entailed in an engineering program and benefit from interactions with advisors, teachers, and peers in the field. Such interactions may help students to more clearly decide what aspects of engineering are appropriate for them to pursue and help them to persist as they begin coursework.”

Finkel, L. (2017). Walking the path together from high school to STEM majors and careers: Utilizing community engagement and a focus on teaching to increase opportunities for URM students. Journal of Science Education & Technology, 26(1), 116–126. Abstract available from and full text available for a fee from

From the abstract: “Despite decades of efforts to increase the participation of women and people from underrepresented minority groups (URM) in science and math majors and careers, and despite the increasing diversification of the US population as a whole (Planty et al. in National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, DC, 2008), participation in STEM majors and STEM careers (including STEM teaching) remains stubbornly male and white (Landivar in American Community Survey Reports, ACS-24, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC, 2013; National Science Foundation and National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics in Special Report NSF 15-311, Arlington, VA, 2015). This paper describes a project with two central goals: (1) to provide opportunities for URM high school students to engage in authentic science and math inquiry with the support of skilled college undergraduate mentors in the hope that these experiences will encourage these high school students to choose and persist in pursuing careers in STEM fields and, even if they do not choose those careers, to feel confident making complex, science or math-based decisions in their everyday lives and (2) to help the mentors (young people, mostly STEM majors) see teaching as a vital, intellectually challenging career that can provide them the opportunity to work for social justice in their communities. While it is unlikely that any one experience will help young people overcome the long odds that face them as they consider either path, our analysis suggests that projects of this kind can make a meaningful contribution to the effort.”

Geyfman, V., Force, C. M., & Davis, L. M. (2015). Women in business: Influences on the undergraduate major choices. Administrative Issues Journal: Education, Practice & Research, 5(2), 51–63. Full text available from

From the abstract: “This study employs a survey of undergraduate business school freshmen to examine factors that influence their decision to study business and whether these factors differ by gender. Specifically, the study examines internal factors, such as students’ perceived aptitudes and interests in the subject; external factors, such as compensation and job availability; and social/interpersonal influences, such as input of teachers, school counselors, parents, and friends. This paper follows up on the authors’ earlier work, which found that despite an increase in the number of male students enrolled in business programs across the nation during the period between 2003 and 2011, female representation declined—an enrollment trend with significant consequences for colleges of business, industry, and the national economy. This study is an attempt to understand this trend by identifying those factors that may influence women to choose business as an undergraduate major.”

Hodges, D., & Corley, K. (2017). Reboot: Revisiting factors influencing female selection of the CIS major. Information Systems Education Journal, 15(4), 17–28. Full text available from

From the abstract: “A concern among many universities, this study reflects and continues research on the changing attitude and intent of selecting a Computer Information Systems major. Focusing on the gender gap for selection of major for women in this field, studies indicate instrumental beliefs and subjective norms can influence behavior and indicate how selection is influenced in undergraduate major selection. Experiential beliefs, overall image, job accessibility, and educational cost (workload) have been shown to influence academic path selection. Salient referents including family, friend, professors, and advisors have also been shown to indicate intent on selection of an academic major. The combination of these factors with respect to intent may be changing over time, and this study reconstructs survey questions and analyzes the difference in responses between the original research and this study. Comparison of student responses have indicated factors that females utilize to select undergraduate majors could be moving. All salient referents, personal image, genuine interest, overall attitudes toward the CIS major, and the intent of females to ultimately choose a CIS major showed significant differences between the studies. With these findings, this study discusses and recommends additional research to find what additional factors may be at work when selection of an undergraduate major by females is being completed.”

Ludwikowski, W. M. A., Armstrong, P. I., Redmond, B. V., & Ridha, B. B. (2019). The role of ability in the selection of majors. Journal of Career Assessment, 27(3), 422–439. Abstract available from and full text available for a fee from

From the abstract: “The current study examined the extent to which ability provides incremental validity to the prediction of major choice beyond what is predicted by measures of personality, self-efficacy, and interests. College students at a large, Midwestern university completed the Ability Profiler after which they completed personality, self-efficacy, and interest measures. Through multinomial logistical regression analyses, ability was found to add some incremental validity (1.5% increase in variance explained), when combined with personality, interest, and self-efficacy measures, to the prediction of major choice. Interests and self-efficacy served as impactful predictors, with personality contributing some influence. This finding illustrates that career counselors should continue to assess clients’ interests and self-efficacy when helping them make career decisions. Additional research should be conducted to assess the utility of other ability measures in the career counseling process.”

Kumar, A., & Kumar, P. (2013). An examination of factors influencing students selection of business majors using TRA framework. Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, 11(1), 77–105. Abstract available from and full text available for a fee from

From the abstract: “Making decisions regarding the selection of a business major is both very important and challenging for students. An understanding of this decision-making process can be valuable for students, parents, and university programs. The current study applies the Theory of Reasoned Action (TRA) consumer decision-making model to examine factors that influence college students’ intentions to choose a business major. A total of 670 undergraduate students enrolled at a large midwestern university participated in the study. Social image, job availability, and aptitude were found to be significant factors that impact students’ decisions to select a business major. The results also reveal that family, high-school counselors, and professors have a major influence on students’ decisions. Furthermore, some unique differences were found related to gender and decided/undecided status of students. The implications of these results for promoting different majors and future research are discussed.”

Mach, K. P., Gordon, S. R., Tearney, K., & McClinton, L., Jr. (2018). “The help I didn’t know I needed”: How a living-learning program “fits” into the first-year experience. Journal of College and University Student Housing, 44(2), 10–27. Abstract available from and full text available from

From the abstract: “Living-learning programs (LLPs) can have a positive influence on student success. The purpose of this study is to provide an example of an LLP that effectively involves faculty and college academic staff as well as to understand student experiences in the LLP related to personal, professional, and academic growth. The LLP at the focus of this study—Freshmen in Transition—includes approximately 100 students every year. Quantitative and qualitative data from this study demonstrate a thriving, supportive, and effective partnership between academic and student affairs representatives through this LLP. Data also support previous research findings that students involved in LLPs have higher retention rates and report being more involved on campus. Findings also revealed that, due to faculty commitment to the program, students in this LLP were more comfortable interacting with faculty and their advisors. Finally, students in this study reported that being involved in the LLP had a positive influence on their professional skills development, major selection, and career choices, an area not well explored in other LLP research.”

Mishra, N., Ismail, A. A., & Al Hadabi, S. J. (2017). A major choice: exploring the factors influencing undergraduate choices of communication major. Learning & Teaching in Higher Education: Gulf Perspectives, 14(2), 1–19. Full text available from

From the abstract: “This study explores the reasons behind the popularity of majoring in Public Relations as opposed to Journalism or Digital Media among mass communications undergraduates in Oman. It attempts to gain insight into the factors influencing students’ decision-making process in selecting their major. It explores factors such as choice of major and sources of information that shape students’ knowledge and perception of the majors, using variables such as knowledge of job market, knowledge of curriculum, information sources and personal influences shaping major choice and selection. The study confirms that perception of the job market is a crucial factor in the selection of the majors. It also reveals that family plays a crucial role in influencing students’ decision-making process while choosing a major. The study concludes that strengthening the role of the academic advisor and educating students on course content and learning outcomes can increase the acceptance of less popular majors among communication undergraduates. The study is relevant in the context that the falling numbers of student enrolments in some areas of media studies could lead to a decline in teaching and research activities in those areas, in addition to a possible shortfall of specific skilled professionals in the national labor market pool.”

REL West note: This is an international study. We include it here because of its relevance to the request.

Montag, T., Campo, J., Weissman, J., Walmsley, A., & Snell, A. (2012). In their own words: Best practices for advising Millennial students about majors. NACADA Journal, 32(2), 26–35. Abstract available from and full text available from

From the abstract: “Utilizing generational theory, we explored the relationship between Millennial characteristics and students’ major selection and academic advising experiences. We conducted focus groups of students with senior standing at a private, midwestern university, and we utilized a closed coding technique to analyze the qualitative data. Consistent with documented Millennial traits, participants expressed a sense of specialness as well as conventional motivation, optimism, and a need to feel protected. The findings suggest that academic advisors should acknowledge and at times accommodate these Millennial characteristics when working with students. More specifically, we suggest a split-model advising system as a way to optimize the advising experiences of Millennial students.”

Phillips, E. (2013). Improving advising using technology and data analytics. Change, 45(1), 48–55. Abstract available from and full text available for a fee from

From the abstract: “The article presents information on student advising in higher education and focuses on eAdvisor, a method of electronic advising being used at Arizona State University (ASU). The author looks at developments in computer technology, data-mining techniques and the impact that the program has on student success, including scheduling courses, choosing a major, and supporting students. The article also discusses the educational leadership and technological innovations at ASU as a result of the eAdvisor program.”

Pizzolato, J. E. (2006). Complex partnerships: Self-authorship and provocative academic-advising practices. NACADA Journal, 26(1), 32–45. Abstract available from and full text available from

From the abstract: “Self-authorship is an additional orientation to traditional college student, epistemological, development theories. Facilitation of self-authorship, via academic advising, may help students meet the desired outcomes outlined by the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education and integrate these abilities into their knowing and decision-making processes. Through investigation of 132 student narratives about advising and selection of academic majors, I examined advising practices that are consistent with Baxter Magolda’s (2001) learning partnerships model for self-authorship development. Findings suggest that student decision-making and self-authoring abilities were enhanced by advising sessions that focused explicitly on goal reflection and associated volitional planning. Students benefited from advising in which nonacademic factors were addressed. Implications for practice are discussed.”

Vespia, K. M., Arrowood, R. M., & Freis, S. D. (2018). Faculty and career advising: Challenges, opportunities, and outcome assessment. Teaching of Psychology, 45(1), 24–31. Abstract available from and full text available for a fee from

From the abstract: “Psychology prioritizes students’ professional or career development by including it as one of the five undergraduate learning goals. Faculty advisors are critical to that development but likely feel less prepared for the role. Departments face challenges assessing associated student learning outcomes. We introduce an instrument programs can use to evaluate outcomes and advisors can use to measure students’ advising needs, perceptions, and preferences. We share results from an undergraduate sample (N = 91) to illustrate potential data and uses. For example, these students viewed faculty as knowledgeable career advisors and expressed confidence in their major selection but simultaneously reported feeling unprepared for postgraduation life and thought the major was not highly marketable. We offer specific recommendations for using such data to promote professional development.”

Additional Organization to Consult

Career Vision –

From the website: “Career Vision is a personalized service dedicated to helping students and career managers find direction, make the very best decisions, and achieve success and satisfaction in their careers. Our mission is to help individuals make great career decisions based on each person’s unique potential. We accomplish this by partnering with our clients—applying our expertise in studying individual differences (abilities, interests, personality & values) and how these traits translate into different career possibilities. Years of research demonstrate that self-knowledge, particularly understanding one’s own aptitudes, provides an objective foundation for people beginning their career plans, or making educational and life decisions.”

REL West note: Career Vision has one resource that is relevant to this request:

Career Vision. (n.d.). Major decision: Choosing your college major. Author. Full text available from


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used:

[(Undergraduate OR college) AND (“major selection” OR “choosing/selecting a major” OR “major decision making”) AND (counselor OR advisor OR “role of the counselor/advisor”) AND (research OR “promising practices”)]

Databases and Resources

We searched Google Scholar and ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When searching and selecting resources to include, we consider the criteria listed below.

  • Date of the Publication: References and resources published within the last 15 years, from 2006 to present, were included in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations and academic databases. Priority is also given to sources that provide free access to the full article.
  • Methodology: Priority is given to the most rigorous study designs, such as randomized controlled trials and quasi-experimental designs, and we may also include descriptive data analyses, survey results, mixed-methods studies, literature reviews, or meta-analyses. Other considerations include the target population and sample, including their relevance to the question, generalizability, and general quality. Priority is given to publications that are peer-reviewed journal articles or reports reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations. If there are many research reports available, we select those with the strongest methodology, or the most recent of similar reports. When there are fewer resources available, we may include a broader range of information. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the West Region (Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory West at WestEd. This memorandum was prepared by REL West under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0012, administered by WestEd. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.