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David Spight.jpgThere is a perception within higher education that students who start college without a declared major are less likely to persist. Early literature described undecided students as an at-risk population that needed special attention in order to be retained. Recent research argues otherwise. Below is a brief summary of the literature related to persistence and undecided/exploratory students.


Much of the initial research was not directly aimed at examining undecided students, but rather sought to determine reasons for student attrition. According to Noel (1985), there are seven forms of attrition, with academic boredom and uncertainty of major as types of attrition specifically associated with undecided students. Noel believes that students become bored because they lack motivation. He attributes this academic boredom to undecided students, describing it as reflective of students without clear goals. Noel (1985) also claims that, “uncertainty about what to study is the most frequent reason talented students give for dropping out of college” (p. 12). Anderson (1985) agrees, suggesting that uncertainty and indecision about career plans is a negative personal barrier to persistence for undecided students. Typical undecided students, Anderson feels, lack goals and direction, which is a reason why these students leave college. Sprandel (1985) contends that a major reason why students drop out is the inability to succeed academically. One reason for academic failure for vocationally and educationally uncertain students, Sprandel believes, is that they “lack a real reason for going to school” (p. 303).

Foote (1980) felt other factors, however, were more likely to affect persistence than the initial choice of major. Impacting student attrition at a higher rate than major choice were the pre-college academic aptitude and achievement of students. “High school percentile rank and ACT entrance test scores appeared to be more related to persistence in college than major designation” (p. 33). Students with higher entrance exam scores were more likely to progress successfully in college. Foote did also find that “determined” students remained in college at a statistically higher rate than “undetermined” students.

As with most research about undecided students, there is little agreement. Some researchers recognize that determining the cause of attrition is problematic, as undecided students do not make up a homogenous group. Gordon (1985) expresses, “some of the general factors identified as causing attrition have also been used to describe the undecided students population” (p. 116), but admits, “it is difficult if not dangerous to make generalizations” (p. 117). Anderson (1985) concedes “there is seldom a single cause for any human behavior; rather the causes are multiple and interrelated” (p. 50-52).

Some scholars have determined academically uncertain students are not more likely to leave college. Lewallen (1993) believes that being vocationally undecided does not mean a student does not want to graduate. Additionally, Graunke, Woosley, and Helms (2006) found that the “commitment to a specific major or career is not related to degree completion” (p.17). Lewallen (1993) explains that the previous studies suggesting that undecided students are more likely to drop out “have confused the construct of commitment to college completion with educational and career choice” (p. 103).

Lewallen (1992) claims “by far, the most critical methodological problem” (p. 32) is reflected in the design of the research on student persistence. The design used in many studies is “an ‘income-outcome’ assessment approach to researching the problem” (p. 32) with the input variable being undecided and persistence/attrition as the outcome variable. This approach, unfortunately, does not consider other factors such as those within college student experiences, campus environment, or student involvement.

Lewallen (1992) argues that the misperception that undecided students are at higher risk of attrition has been reinforced by frequent citation of Beal and Noel (1980), in which they researched information from staff and administrators from hundreds of colleges and universities. Beal and Noel explain:

The survey instrument itself was designed to solicit information on institutional retention data regarding the degree to which analysis of attrition/retention had taken place on the campus, on the positive and negative characteristics of institutions that might relate to attrition or retention, and on how campuses were organized for retention efforts, and on assessment of the problem area encountered by institutions engaged in retention efforts (Beal and Noel, 1980, p. 15-16).

Beal and Noel (1980) found in their results what they felt were the “most important factors in student retention...on a scale of one (low) to five (high)” (p. 43). They believe there are four factors related to why students might be less likely to persist. Limited educational aspirations and indecision about major/career goal, the second and third factors, support the contention that undecided students are more attrition-prone.

Lewallen (1992) counters that there are some problems with Beal and Noel’s (1980) findings, as their results “were not empirically derived from studying students, but were the result of respondents’ opinions, perceptions, and judgments” (p. 29-30). As Lewallen (1992) describes, most research on undecided student persistence and attrition is flawed:

The literature which examines undecided student persistence/attrition is not very plentiful. Some of these studies did not directly examine undecided students, but rather examined persistence/attrition in general. It is extremely difficult to make generalizations from this research and to conclude that undecided students are attrition prone because of numerous methodological problems (Lewallen, 1992, p. 30).

More recently, Cuseo (2005) agreed with Lewallen that it is unfortunate there is a perception that undecided students are more attrition-prone. He argues that decided students who made inappropriate choices of major based on lack of information, lack of thoughtful planning, or lack of a realistic self-assessment of their abilities and interests, might in fact be at a greater risk of leaving college than undecided students. Graunke, Woosley, and Helms (2006) also found that “individuals who reported relatively high levels of commitment toward a specific career path were less likely to complete a degree in six years than were individuals who reported lower levels of commitment” (p. 17). The significant number of major changers as shown in research (Foote, 1980; Kramer, Higley, & Olsen, 1994; Pierson, 1962; Titley and Titley, 1980) supports the possibility that decided students are at least at a comparable level of risk of attrition as undecided students.

Based upon these findings we, as advisors, may want to consider how we can help our “declared” students confirm or reject their initial choice of major, and how are we targeting them in our retention efforts.

David B. Spight
Assistant Dean for Advising
The School of Undergraduate Studies
The University of Texas at Austin


Anderson, E. (1985). Forces influencing student persistence and achievement. In Noel, L., Levitz, R., Saluri, D., & Associates. Increasing student retention: Effective programs and practices for reducing the dropout rate. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Beal, P.E., & Noel, L. (1980). What works in student retention. Iowa City, IA and Boulder, CO: The American College Testing Program and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.

Cuseo, J. (2005). “Decided,” “undecided,” and “in transition”: Implications for academic advisement, career counseling & student retention. In R.S. Feldman (Ed.). Improving the first year of college: Research and practice. (pp.27-48). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Foote, B. (1980). Determined- and undetermined-major students: How different are they?Journal of College Student Personnel, 21, 29-34.

Gordon, V.N. (1985). Students with uncertain academic goals. In Noel, L., Levitz, R., Saluri, D., & Associates. Increasing student retention: Effective programs and practices for reducing the dropout rate. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Graunke, S.S., Woosley, S.A., & Helms, L.L. (2006). How do their initial goals impact students’ chances to graduate? An exploration of three types of commitment. NACADA Journal, 26(1), 13-18.

Kramer, G.L., Higley, H.B., & Olsen, D. (1994). Changes in academic major among undergraduate students. College and University, 69(2), 88-98.

Lewallen, W.C. (1992). Persistence of the “undecided”: The characteristics and college persistence of students undecided about academic major or career choice. Dissertation Abstracts International, 53, 12A, 4226.

Lewallen, W.C. (1993). The impact of being “undecided” on college-student persistence.Journal of College Student Development, 34(2), 103-112.

Noel, L. (1985). Increasing student retention: New challenges and potential. In Noel, L., Levitz, R., Saluri, D., & Associates. Increasing student retention: Effective programs and practices for reducing the dropout rate. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Pierson, R.P. (1962). Changes of major by university students. Personnel and Guidance Journal, 40, 458-461.

Sprandel, H.Z. (1985). Career planning and counseling. In Noel, L., Levitz, R., Saluri, D., & Associates. (1985). Increasing student retention: Effective programs and practices for reducing the dropout rate. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Titley, R.W., & Titley, B.S. (1980). Initial choice of college major: Are only the “undecided” undecided? Journal of College Student Personnel, 21, 293-298.

Cite this article using APA style as: Spight, D. (2008, December). Undecided / exploratory students and persistence. Academic Advising Today, 31(4). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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