Career choice, study drop out and identity development: The gains of the opportunity to change majors for students and society
As all university students and teachers will have noticed by now, the Dutch government aims to reduce the student drop out in higher education. The main aim is to help and force students to make ”the right choice” and stick to their choice from the beginning. This striving takes different forms: firstly to offer more, better and more compulsory information to make sure that students are well informed about the characteristics of the study of their choice. Secondly, attempts are made to select students before they start university. Predictive models are being developed to carry out this selection. Thirdly, the organization of the first year’s program is improved, for example by initiating learning communities in which students work together in the same small groups during the whole year. Finally, financial barriers make it more difficult to change your major, or to do a second master or bachelor.
As a developmental psychologist, I want to argue that a strong emphasis on “making the right choice” around age 18 hampers psychological development, and, in the long run, will have negative societal effects.
These efforts have brought about positive changes. Especially the changes in the organization of the first year in university seem related to improvements in the commitments of first year students (van der Gaag & Kunnen, 2014). However, there are practical and fundamental arguments against the other measures, and against the basic idea that 18 year olds should be able make a choice for an education that is “the right one”. As a developmental psychologist, I want to argue that a strong emphasis on “making the right choice” around age 18 hampers psychological development, and, in the long run, will have negative societal effects. At the age of 18, development is still in full progress, and young people may show huge developmental changes. For example, complex decision skills with an emotional load are difficult for many 18 year olds.
Identity development only starts around age 15, and in general proceeds until at least age 25. In fact, identity development never stops, but the major developmental changes take place between age 15 and age 25. Because career choice is one of the major domains of identity development it seems strange to force people to make a definitive choice at the beginning of their developmental process. Optimal identity development is characterized by a period of exploration, in which young people explore both themselves (their own skills, values, preferences etc.) and the context, thus different study and career opportunities that are available.
Opportunities for the young
Increasing efforts of schools and universities to organize information markets, give career choice courses, and organize “student for a day” sessions, can offer young people opportunities to explore before making a choice. And for some youngsters that works well. Preliminary findings of PhD student Jeany van Beelen suggest that there seems to be a negative relation between attending summer schools etc., and the chance to drop out. However, as school counselors observe, for many students, this is just too soon. In their last school year, in the midst of their final exam, many young people are simply not ready to start their exploration process. Moreover, exploration is more than just gathering information. Exploration also means experiencing what it means to study. Whether or not one is able to organize ones life, to work disciplined, or to cooperate with fellow students is very difficult to know in advance. In addition, practical experiences, such as success or failure at exams, and feeling at home in the group, are factors that cannot be foreseen. So, for some students changing studies is simply the inevitable result of their exploration, and thus of their developmental process. Often, it is felt as a failure, or as a mistake.
Opportunities for change
And although I would not define it as a mistake if a student finds out that the study of his choice does not work out after all, having the opportunity to make mistakes is often stressed as very important in development. The reconsideration of one’s choice may be very important as a basis to make a well-balanced and well-fitting new choice. As a university teacher with interest in career choice, I become more and more convinced that students who did change their major often make a more elaborated and fitting choice, and are more intrinsically motivated for their studies. I know several students in psychology who have started with another major (like law or economy), and after one year found out that they were more interested in the human motives behind crime, or behind economical processes, then in crime and economy itself. Another example is the student from a family of lawyers whose whole upbringing is based on the idea that he will become a lawyer too. However, he finds out, after two years of study, that he does not like law at all, but loves to teach and is a highly talented teacher. If we block the possibility to change majors, we either stop talented young people to pursuit an academic career, or we force them to stick with a choice that does not fit them. In both cases, this frustrates their developmental possibilities.
Optimal identity development results in adults who have committed themselves to choices in their life, but who still are flexible and capable to adjust to changes in our rapidly changing society.
Optimal identity development results in adults who have committed themselves to choices in their life, but who still are flexible and capable to adjust to changes in our rapidly changing society. Universities prepare students for responsible positions in society. Flexible individuals with strong commitments are badly needed, and frustrating identity development may be detrimental, not just for the individuals, but also for the broader society. Allowing students to change studies costs money, but in the long run it will be worth it, in terms of personal wellbeing, and in terms of the gains for society.
Relevant links and publications
Kunnen, E. S. (2011). Studiekeuze en studiekeuzebegeleiding vanuit een ontwikkelingspsychologisch gezichtspunt. Kluwer Navigator Onderwijs, module leerlingenzorg vo. Alphen aan de Rijn: Kluwer.
Van der Gaag, M. A. E. and Kunnen, E. S. (2014). Changes in the first year: What changed in commitment trajectories and experiences of first year students in the Psychology bachelor, since implementation of education innovations? Internal Research Rapport