For Love or Money: Surveying Americans on How College Majors Are Chosen

title graphic for the college major survey

Choosing a college major can be an overwhelming decision. Finding a path that you’re passionate about while also keeping future goals in check is more of a balancing act than anything else.

For many, input from family members is a major factor when deciding on a degree. Many young adults experience added stress from family expectations, which can make settling on a field of study even more difficult; not to mention the financial pressure that many students experience when it comes to paying off student loans.1 This dichotomy can make choosing a major feel like a battle between the head and the heart.

So when it comes to deciding on a college major, does money or love win out? Grand Canyon University, along with help from Grand Canyon Education, set out to uncover the truth behind how Americans choose a college major. We surveyed respondents across the U.S. about the factors that most heavily influenced their decision and the sources of stress that come with choosing a major. Read on to see what we found!

For Love or Money: How Are College Majors Chosen?

infographic showing how Americans chose their college major for love over money

When it comes to choosing a college major, most Americans follow their heart instead of their head. An overwhelming 81% decided on a college major based on their love of the subject, whereas only 19% chose a major for money or a guaranteed high income.

The power of love holds true across generations. At least three-fourths of each generation chose their college major based on the profession they were most passionate about. The least financially motivated generation is millennials, with only 16% majoring in a subject for the money.

But, does the heart truly know what it wants? Just over six out of every 10 Americans that chose a degree for love feel regretful of that decision. Similarly, 65% of Americans changed occupations to a field unrelated to their college major. The top reason cited for this change was financial stability and a higher income, so in the end, money does play a major role.

College Major and Career Path Pivots

graphic depicting the average number of times Americans change their college major and career path

Next, we decided to take a look at how many times American college students change their major and how many times college graduates have changed their career path. Choosing a major or a career path is not a binding decision. In fact, the average U.S. college student changes their major nearly three times during their college career and the average college graduate changes their career over 3.5 times in their lifetime! That leaves plenty of room for exploration and learning across industries.

Baby boomers are the least likely to change their careers. Members of this generation only changed careers an average of 2.86 times in their lifetime. For perspective, Gen Z has already changed careers an average of 2.62 times and this generation is full of fresh college graduates!

The Factors That Most Influence College Major Decisions

bar graph displaying the factors that most influence college major decisions

A whole slew of factors can influence a college major decision. Our survey revealed that work-life balance has the largest influence on choosing a college major – according to 46% of respondents. This makes sense, as a greater emphasis is being placed on mental health in the workplace in recent years, with some companies offering benefits like unlimited PTO and health/wellness stipends to mitigate employee burnout.2

Pressure When It Comes to Choosing a College Major

Infographic showing the largest source of pressure on college major decisions

Finally, we decided to look at the biggest sources of stress when it comes to choosing a college major. Seventy percent of Americans feel that 18 or 19 (the typical age of freshmen) is too early to decide on a major. Additionally, 48% felt high levels of pressure to make the right decision when it came to their college major. These two findings likely tie into each other. Viewing a college major as the end-all, be-all for career success puts a significant amount of pressure on a fresh high school graduate who may or may not know what their life’s calling is yet. So if nearly half of Americans feel pressured to choose the right major, it’s no wonder that 70% feel that the weight of this decision is too heavy for an 18-year-old’s shoulders.

Family is the largest influence on choosing a college major. Forty-six percent of respondents say that family was the largest source of pressure to make the right decision about their college major. Interestingly, the second-largest source of pressure is internal. Thirty-two percent of respondents felt the most pressure from themselves when it came to making the right decision.

At Grand Canyon University, we understand the horde of factors that weigh on a college student’s choice of degree. This decision is often stressful, but it doesn’t have to be. GCU offers a wide range of topics to study across bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees, as well as certificate, bridge and post-master’s certificates. Check out our degree comparison feature to weigh the benefits of different programs and ultimately, find the right major for you!

1Retrieved from EducationData.org, “Student Loan Debt by Generation” in August 2021

2Retrieved from Business Insider, “25 small and midsize companies with the best work-life balance, according to employees” in August 2021

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.

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