Study: Most College Students Will Stick with Their Major, Even if the Salary is Not What They Thought

PISCATAWAY, N.J. (August 16, 2018) – Viewing salary data causes college students to lower their earnings expectations, but it does not affect their choice of major or their perception of future job security, according to a study by the Education and Employment Research Center at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. The study also finds career services counselors are a critical source of guidance for low-income and first-generation college students.

“It is one thing to make data available. It is another for students to understand and use the data well,” said Michelle Van Noy, associate director of the Education and Employment Research Center and a co-author of the study. “With increasing amounts of publicly-available data on employment outcomes, we wanted to understand their actual impact on students and their decision-making.”

Van Noy and fellow researcher Alex Ruder developed an online survey focusing on six broad areas of study: business, education, health, humanities, social science, and STEM. They showed each student either (a) the median salary in his or her field of study, or (b) the salary range and job security in that field, or (c) no salary information. Then, they asked students to estimate their future earnings and job security and to rate their likelihood of completing a degree in their current major.

The researchers contacted nearly 50,000 Rutgers University students and received 4,916 completed surveys in response. Key findings include:

  • Asked to estimate what their earnings will be five years after graduation, students who viewed the median salary or salary range in their field had significantly lower earnings expectations than those who viewed no salary data.
  • The sharpest drop occurred among business and STEM students. Those who viewed the median salary or salary range lowered their expected earnings by up to $10,000. The researchers theorize these high-paying fields cause students to form pie-in-the-sky conceptions.
  • The median salary proved more sobering than the salary range and job security statistics in all fields, highlighting the importance of how colleges and universities present their earnings data.
  • Viewing the median salary or salary range did not influence students’ choice of major or expected job security, suggesting that earnings data is just one small piece of their decision-making process.
  • Low-income and first-generation college students were less likely to rely on their family for help in selecting a major and more likely to turn to the university’s career services counselors. (At Rutgers, a new course brings this information right into the classroom.)

“While data on employment outcomes can be important and valuable, there are limits to how much this information influences students’ decision-making about majors and careers,” Van Noy said. “Students factor in multiple influences and sources of information, and they need exposure to a variety of experiences and supports to help in this process.”

This study is part of ongoing research funded by the Russell Sage Foundation and two National Science Foundation grants. Click here to read the full 12-page issue brief and click here to learn more about the Education and Employment Research Center.

 

Press Contact

Steve Flamisch, Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations

848.252.9011 (cell), steve.flamisch@smlr.rutgers.edu

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The Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations is the world’s leading source of expertise on managing and representing workers, designing effective organizations, and building strong employment relationships.

 

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