Students Rely on Least Reliable Source for Advice on College Majors: Friends and Family

A new study says the best sources of advice available to students considering college are the ones they least utilize.

College students sit at a table, studying together in the Brody Learning Commons, a interactive/collaborative study space and library on the Homewood campus of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, 2014. Courtesy Eric Chen. (JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images)

When it comes to choosing college majors – a crucial decision that lays the groundwork for future employment and earnings – students often rely on the least reliable sources for advice: family and friends.

Work colleagues and employers are among the best sources of information for students seeking advice about choosing a major. But according to a new survey by Gallup and Strada Education Network, published Monday, they are the least utilized. “This causes us to rethink the entire college advice mechanism,” Brandon Busteed, executive director of education and workforce development at Gallup, says. “There is a lot of pretty bad advice out there.”

When choosing a major field of study, the survey shows, students most commonly sought advice from “informal social networks.” In fact, more than half of adults, or 55 percent, with an associate degree, some college or a bachelor’s degree depended on their social network for advice about choosing a major, most frequently from friends and family.

The next most commonly consulted source of advice, which 44 percent of people reported considering, was college and high school counselors, as well as media-based information. The least consulted group, which 20 percent reported consulting, were work-based networks, including former employers and work colleagues.

“It’s really surprising and counterintuitive,” Busteed says.

Indeed, the survey showed that, despite a small percentage of students turning to work-based networks for advice on a major, 84 percent rated advice they received from people with experience in a field as helpful, and 82 percent rate advice from an employer or coworker as helpful.

Moreover, those who say they sought advice from work-based sources about a field of study are less likely to have second thoughts about their choice of major, the survey shows. That finding was particularly true for science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, majors.

The misalignment, the report suggests, highlights the need to improve the effectiveness of the current advising model.

“It’s a call to action for us,” Carol D’Amico, executive vice president of mission advancement and philanthropy at Strada, says. “One of the things I’d say to our friends in higher education is, ‘How do we put faculty, incentivize faculty and reward faculty for taking on this roll? How do we incorporate more work-based experiences into the curriculum?’”

The report recommends relying less on high school and college counselors, who are overworked and often responsible for an unrealistic number of students, and more on potential employers and faculty members.

“Taken together, the challenges facing the formal channels of student guidance suggest that retooling the traditional model of advising to fit the changing needs of students could bolster its effectiveness,” the report reads.

The report is based on based on telephone surveys conducted Jan. 2 – Aug. 13 with a random sample of 22,087 respondents aged 18 to 65, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.The report is part of the Education Consumer Pulse initiative, launched by Gallup and Strada in 2016. It’s a follow-up to a previous survey published in June that found that 36 percent of people say they’d change their major if they could do college over again.

“We know your choice of major is not necessarily the choice of career, but it puts you on a pathway and commits you to a pathway,” D’Amico says. “Most everyone who goes to higher education these days say they are going to launch a career. That’s a fact. So how do we become much more intentional about getting them to their desired career?”

D’Amico says Strada and Gallup will team to prepare another survey, this time returning to the initial findings to ask why people have second thoughts on majors, as well as taking a deeper look at specific populations, particularly those who have some college but no degree.

Busteed says the surveys are crucial because, unlike other research, they actually take into account the experience of the consumer.

“I continue to be frustrated that none of it includes information from the people who experience it,” he says. “This perspective is truly new. No one is out there digging into how current students feel about their experiences. But the voice of the consumer is so important.”

Lauren Camera is an education reporter at U.S. News & World Report. She’s covered education policy and politics for nearly a decade.

Source: Study: Students Rely on Least Reliable Source for Advice on College Majors: Friends and Family

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