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.

Kunnen, E. S. (2013). The effects of career choice guidance on identity development. Education research international.

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


NOTE: Image by Ian Wilson, licenced under CC BY 2.0

Saskia Kunnen is an associate professor in developmental Psychology at the University of Groningen (RuG). Her domains of interest are identity development and study and career choice, and a complex dynamic systems approach of developmental processes.

Saskia studies identity development since about 20 years, and she sees study choice as part of identity development. Ten years ago, a career choice guidance project was initiated at the department of Developmental Psychology, and since then Saskia has collaborated with for example “het studiebegeleidingstraject Noord” which is an initiative of the RuG, the Hanze University of Applied Sciences and several secondary schools in Groningen.

For an overview of Saskia’s publications, see

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  • Marije aan het Rot February 13, 2015  

    Dear Saskia,
    Thank you for this very interesting piece. On the one hand you promote the idea that students should be allowed to explore before they gradually settle down on the topic of their interest. On the other hand you promote the idea that students should be allowed to make “mistakes”.

    Concerning the latter, you are clearly in favor of continuing to give students the opportunity to change to another study program, should they realize that the one they chose initially does not meet their expectations.

    I am curious about your ideas concerning the former, i.e. how to let students explore more? Would offering a Faculty-wide Bachelor program of Behavioral and Social Sciences, in which students can take courses on Psychology, Sociology, and Education and make personal choices about being more focused on one topic or not, be the way to go?

  • Saskia Kunnen February 16, 2015  

    Dear Marije,
    This is an interesting topic you raise. There is a lot to say about that. Advantages of your suggestion are, of course, that students in their first year have the opportunity to develop commitments to one domain.It is a bit like the US system. One of the requirements would be that there is a thorough guidance, like our present mentor system but more intensive, to help students to explore systematically, to reflect, and to use the experiences. Disadvantages are that not all students need it, and students who are certain they want to do psychology will not be happy if they have to do many other subjects as well. At the university in Utrecht, they have had ( in the late nineties) a broad social sciences program, for several years, but many students did not like it. A second disadvantage is that in the four years we have in the BaMa, there will be still less time for the specialist knowledge and skills that are needed to become a clinical psychologist, or a developmental psychologist.
    I think it is important to offer good guidance to first year students, for example in the mentor groups, to help them to explore, to reflect on their choice, to help them making up their mind, and if they find that they want to do another major, to make that possible, thus to skip rules that make it very expensive to do another major, high costs of doing second studies etc.
    It costs some money, but given the advantages of people finding a career that suits them, it will be cheaper in the long run.

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