NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

Modeling College Major Choices

StudentsÂ’ forecasts of expected earnings in different majors are often incorrect ... 7.5 percent of students would switch majors if they made no such forecast errors.

Although various studies have documented differences in earnings across college majors, comparatively little is known about how students choose their major. In Modeling College Major Choices Using Elicited Measures of Expectations and Counterfactuals (NBER Working Paper No. 15729), co-authors Peter Arcidiacono, V. Joseph Hotz, and Songman Kang find that both expected future earnings and studentsÂ’ assessments of their own abilities affect their choice of a college major. However, studentsÂ’ forecasts of expected earnings in different majors are often incorrect. This study estimates that 7.5 percent of students would switch majors if they made no such forecast errors.

The data for the study come from a 2009 survey of 173 Duke University male undergraduates. The survey asked students to estimate earnings ten years after graduation in a variety of professions, or for students majoring in particular fields, as well as what the respondent expected to earn in his major and how much his earnings would have to change in order to entice him to switch majors. The students who completed the paid survey were more likely to receive financial aid, major in science, and be of Asian ethnicity than the rest of the Duke male student body.

In modeling students' choices, the authors find that if abilities were assumed to be equal, students would move from the Humanities and the Social Sciences (other than Economics) into Engineering because of the higher expected earnings from an Engineering major. In fact, the share of individuals choosing Natural Science or Engineering Majors increases by 5.5 percent and 10 percent respectively when expected earnings increase by one standard deviation. If expected earnings were equal across all majors, then the students choosing Humanities and Social Science majors would increase by 17 percent and 10 percent respectively, while those choosing Economics majors would fall by 16 percent.

-- Linda Gorman

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