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Students' Planned Majors and Academic Interests Are Often Out of Sync

What high school students think they want to study in college doesn't always match their interests and strengths. And that mismatch can lead to switching majors, transferring schools, and higher college costs overall.

About one-third of students who recently took the ACT signaled plans to major in a subject that was not deemed a good fit with their academic interests, according to a new study by the organization that administers the college-entrance exam.

In all, 79 percent of students who took the ACT indicated a particular college major that they planned to pursue. That self-reported information was compared to their interests (from the ACT Interest Inventory) and profiles of college students in that same program of study. Together, the research helped form "interest-major fit scores" that were part of the new College Choice Report: Preferences and Prospects by ACT Inc., the Iowa City, Iowa-based testing and research organization.

The majority of ACT-tested grads chose a major that was at least a moderate fit with their interests, yet only 36 percent selected one that was a good fit and 32 percent chose a major that was a poor fit with their interests, the report found.

These findings underscore the need for more counseling and early intervention, according to ACT officials. Counselors should start career exploration conversations as early as 8th grade, said Steve Kappler, the ACT's assistant vice president for career and college readiness. "It's an important time to get them to understand not just what they think they are interested in, but how to link that to certain careers," he said. "The sooner we can help find their passion, the more apt they are to succeed no matter what they do postsecondary."

The higher the students scored on the ACT, the report noted, the more likely the major was to be an appropriate match. Lower-achieving students, particularly, can benefit from counseling that exposes them to a range of career options to make sure they aren't limiting themselves, added Kappler.

ACT research indicates that the majority of students would like more help with career- and college- planning, ACT research shows. Starting out on the wrong educational path can hurt completion rates and put students in deeper debt paying for more years in school, previous research has found.

Students' likely field of study often plays a big role in where they choose to enroll. ACT found that half of those students who indicated a planned major reported that the availability of a particular major was the most important factor in selecting a college.

So, just how sure were high school students about their career paths? Among ACT test-takers who selected a planned major, 41 percent said they were very sure of their choice, 45 percent were fairly sure, and 15 percent were not sure. As parents' education level increases, the percentage of students who were very sure of their planned major choice decreased, according to the report.

Online tools to help students explore career options are expanding. This fall, ACT launched ACT Profile designed for high school students to use with their counselors. The College Board also has an online resource, BigFuture to help students plan, research, and pay for college. To help students explore college costs, the U.S. Department of Education's College Affordability and Transparency Center can help students comparison shop.

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