Melissa Cumbia, Virginia Tech
Lauren Varboncoeur, Virginia Tech
College facilitates exploration, experimentation, and identity development, all of which can lead students to change programs of study. Research conducted by the U.S. Department of Education found approximately 30% of college students change majors (Leu, 2017, p. 1). Institutions must be well equipped to support major changes given their prevalence. A change in major is often pivotal for students, and assistance from advisors is critical. Change of major students are a distinct population with unique advising needs, and these students require an intentional advising approach focused on helping them make an informed decision and achieve degree completion. Advisors serving specific major programs must develop deliberate advising practices for change of major students, especially while balancing that responsibility with other duties. This discussion notes important considerations regarding major changes, encourages advisors in articulating intentions for working with change of major students, and shares replicable practices for supporting these students.
Our institution, Virginia Tech, is a large, public, four-year institution which offers a broad scope of majors. Majors at Virginia Tech may either be restricted (students must meet criteria and be accepted into the program) or unrestricted (available to any enrolled student), and students may only change primary majors during designated periods. Approximately 45% of students who graduate in the programs for which we (the authors) advise change from other majors or undecided programs (Academic Applications, 2022). Because of the high percentage of students that change majors into the unrestricted programs for which we advise, we assist students before, during, and after a major transition. As primary role advisors to undergraduate students in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment, we support recruitment events and offer individual appointments for major change inquiries. The authors have previous experience in centralized university advising centers and advising undeclared students. In contrast, the responsibility most salient to our current roles is supporting students once they have decided to change majors to our programs. Our perspective may therefore differ from advisors who serve undeclared students, as supporting students after a major change involves navigating the reality of a decision to change majors.
About Change of Major Students
It has been long observed that students change majors “because of changing interests or because they are forced to face ‘institutional realities’” (Gordon & Steele, 1992, p. 22). In our experience advising students in the Virginia Tech College of Natural Resources and Environment, change of major students (COMS) are motivated by push and/or pull factors. Push factors are negative such as experienced or anticipated lack of success, university policy related to unsatisfactory progress towards degree, disinterest or disillusionment with initial major, a misalignment with goals, or deficiency of community within the program. Pull factors are positive, often involving interest in new fields and new goals. Students will have varying levels of enthusiasm and optimism about changing majors depending on the extent to which they are motivated by push versus pull reasons.
Gathering information may present challenges for prospective COMS. They may feel anxious about making a decision, overwhelmed by their options, and confused about distinctions between related options. Students often make initial major selections with limited exposure to fields and careers, basing the decision on how their strengths and interests in high school may translate to college programs and future employment. For this reason, information gathering is an important part of the change of major experience, and it is something advisors must support with clear and organized information.
COMS may also experience challenges when transitioning to new programs. This can include difficulty integrating with new faculty, peers, and advisors. COMS will vary in the support they have from personal communities, including friends and family, in making a change. Kyte (2019) notes that “a change of major can disrupt key relationships” (para. 4). Limited time in programs to form relationships, leverage academic opportunities, develop new career goals, and complete relevant experiential learning present difficulties for COMS. Related to belonging, COMS may combat imposter syndrome due to negative experiences in other programs. COMS may question their reasons for being in college, or at a particular institution, once no longer pursuing their initial major. It is crucial that advisors offer COMS support in becoming engaged in their new major by facilitating connections with faculty in the program as well as helping students re-envision academic and co-curricular experiences. Advisors should have faculty contacts to whom they can refer students for field-specific mentoring. To emphasize the role of advisors as a point of connection to the program, advisors must share information about their services.
A significant consideration for COMS is progress toward degree completion and financial concerns related to delayed graduation. The experiences of students who change from programs with similar requirements differ from students who make a significant change in field. Advisors are the best resource for personalized guidance on students’ timeline to graduation after a major change. Advisors must advocate for tools that support change of major advising (e.g., what-if degree audits) as well as work with administrators to ensure access to information that would enable them to advise accurately (e.g., access to students’ academic records). Advisors must balance helping students utilize existing credit while also requiring them to complete the curriculum of the new major. Advisors can collaborate with their programs to establish guidelines for requests from COMS to utilize previously completed coursework. When creating a plan of study, advisors must help students consider the opportunity costs of completing the degree as quickly as possible versus extending graduation for what may be an improved experience; even if permitted, nonstandard course sequencing can generate stress and diminish academic performance. COMS may be concerned about the cost of additional semesters, forgoing funding tied to their previous program, or ineligibility for funding due to prior academic failure. Advisors can help students consider the financial implications of a major change and connect them to financial resources on campus.
Advising Change of Major Students
Supporting COMS during the information gathering stage presents some challenges for program-specific advisors. Nonetheless, advisors play a critical role in sharing information related to changes of major. COMS need information regarding the requirements of a prospective program, how related majors compare, and career outcomes for majors of interest. It can be challenging for advisors to provide the broad scope of information needed in one meeting, even when only focusing on a single major. One useful strategy is to share a standardized message before an exploratory appointment that includes major description, related careers, curriculum requirements, and guidance on course sequencing. Providing information proactively helps students prepare for meetings and assess their interests in advance. Advisors can then spend meeting time addressing specific inquiries and asking open-ended questions to facilitate students’ decision making. Advisors should also be prepared to suggest ways to learn more about majors before making the decision to change, such as classes that are good indicators of what students will experience in a major. Kyllo (2014) notes that students benefit from trying courses, events, and clubs related to a field before committing to a major (para. 7).
Meeting the demand for change of major advising and providing individual attention prior to change of major is another challenge for program-specific advisors. Gordon and Steele (1992) hold that advisor accessibility is critical for exploring students, and that students in transition may find waiting for an appointment to be distressing (p. 24). Individual advising is often preferable because questions from COMS, especially about timeline to graduation and plan of study, are usually too specific to address in groups. Additionally, in the authors’ experience, an individualized connection with the prospective advisor is often very meaningful to COMS. However, change of major inquiries often occur during peak advising times, such as course registration, which is especially challenging. Unlike an office designed to serve undecided students, advisors serving specific programs must determine the extent to which they meet individually with prospective students and consider how to balance the demand for change of major advising with other duties.
Program-specific advisors may feel pressure to recruit for their programs when advising COMS. This requires consideration of advising ethics, such as tension between recruiting new students and ethically helping students find a good fit even if not in the advisor’s designated programs. Although advisors do promote their programs, they must help students develop realistic expectations for new majors. It is helpful to remember that it is the advisor’s responsibility to provide accurate information and the student’s responsibility to make the decision; an advisor cannot be more invested in the program of study than the student.
Intentional Approaches in Advising Change of Major Students
Although the process of working with COMS may become routine for advisors, remember that the experience is usually deeply personal for students. Advising services for COMS must meet goals throughout the various stages by helping students make informed decisions about changing majors as well as successfully transition to, and complete, the new program of study. Advisors should help COMS gather information, assess interests and change of major implications, and facilitate program connections, all of which will reduce the chances that a student will seek to change majors again. A successful advising approach to working with COMS upholds several NACADA (2017) Core Values of Academic Advising by empowering students to make decisions about their education and profession, creating an inclusive environment for COMS, acting ethically when sharing information with COMS, and professionally balancing change of major inquiries with other duties. Positive change of major transitions can lead to students experiencing increased self-efficacy and motivation thereby improving the likelihood of them being retained at the institution and completing degrees. Program-specific advisors can intentionally develop advising strategies for supporting COMS that are ethical, efficient, and effective.
Academic Applications, Virginia Tech. (2022, September 16). 2022 Banner, student information system of record. https://4help.vt.edu/
Gordon, V. N., & Steele, G.E. (1992). Advising major-changers: Students in transition. NACADA Journal, 12(1), 22–27. https://nacada.ksu.edu/Portals/0/Clearinghouse/documents/0271-9517-12_1_22.pdf
Kyllo, S. (2014, March). Undeclared: How picking a major is like picking a life partner. Academic Advising Today, 37(1). https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Undeclared-How-Picking-a-Major-is-like-Picking-a-Life-Partner.aspx
Kyte, S. B. (2019, March). Changing major, staying on track: Bringing data-driven insights into tried-and-true graduation pathways to advising. Academic Advising Today, 42(1). https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Changing-Major-Staying-on-Track-Bringing-Data-Driven-Insights-into-Tried-and-True-Graduation-Pathways-to-Advising.aspx
Leu, K. (2017, December 7). Beginning college students who change their majors within 3 years of enrollment. National Center for Education Statistics. https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2018/2018434.pdf
NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. (2017). NACADA core values of academic advising. https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Pillars/CoreValues.aspx