Choice of Major and Veteran Status Affect Students' Experiences in College, Survey Finds

November 04, 2010

Students' choices of major affect more than their job prospects after graduation; they also influence the way they learn and interact with professors, according to this year's National Survey of Student Engagement, released on Thursday.

The report examines what it calls educationally purposeful activities and high-impact practices, finding that they vary significantly by major. About half of all seniors, for example, participate in service learning, but three-quarters of nursing and physical-education majors do. One-third of students complete a senior project, whereas half of history and political-science majors do. And half of all seniors have held internships, compared with three in four education and journalism majors and two in five accounting and business-administration majors.

Business-administration students, according to the report, do more class presentations and group projects but are less likely to discuss career plans with faculty than students in three other popular majors: biology, English, and psychology. English majors most often discuss ideas with professors outside class, and psychology majors are most likely to engage in "reflective learning," which the survey defines as examining, for example, the strengths and weaknesses of one's own beliefs or trying to view an issue from another's perspective.

The report acknowledges that various disciplines' traditions and standards may account for some of the differences, but it encourages campus leaders to expand opportunities for all students.

Veterans' Experiences

This year's survey also closely examines the experiences of veterans, whom it finds, especially as seniors, to perceive lower levels of campus support than their nonveteran classmates. The survey polled 11,000 self-identified veterans, who, the report says, tend to be older and male. One in five has at least one disability, and over all, they are more likely to be first-generation, part-time, transfer, and online students.

On average, veterans spend the same amount of time studying as their peers but more time working and caring for dependents. Combat veterans, as full-time freshmen, spend twice as much time working and six times as many hours caring for dependents as their classmates.

Most veterans report the same level of satisfaction as their peers, but they tend to interact less often with faculty, according to the survey, and they report less reflective learning.

Several colleges already run support programs for veteran students, but researchers say more must be done. "Based on these results," the report says, "baccalaureate-granting institutions should seek ways to more effectively engage student veterans in effective educational practices and provide them with the supportive environments that promote success."

The report also identifies other student populations that may benefit from additional assistance. Students who perceive themselves to be less prepared for college and anticipate more difficulty relative to their peers are least likely to value or seek out support services, the report says. Male students are less likely to participate in service learning; fewer African-American students study abroad; fewer first-generation students hold internships; and transfer students are significantly less likely to engage in all such high-impact practices.

More than 1,400 colleges have participated in the survey, which is known as Nessie, at least once since 2000. Last spring 362,000 freshmen and seniors at 564 four-year colleges in the United States completed the survey, which included new questions about students' quantitative reasoning, academic interaction with peers, and familiarity with institutional learning goals.

Participating colleges get detailed measures of their students' "engagement," or the extent to which they are immersed in academics and campus activities. The report evaluates institutions' performances in five categories: level of academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, student-faculty interaction, enriching educational experiences, and supportive campus environment.

The survey is administered by the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research, sponsored in part by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and paid for by participating colleges. This year's report, "Major Differences: Examining Student Engagement by Field of Study," is available free online and for $20 in print from the National Survey of Student Engagement.