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Determinants of college major choice: identification using an information experiment

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Author Info

  • Matthew Wiswall
  • Basit Zafar

Abstract

This paper studies the determinants of college major choice using a unique “information” experiment embedded in a survey. We first ask respondents their self-beliefs—beliefs about their own expected earnings and other major-specific outcomes conditional on various majors, their population beliefs—beliefs about the population distribution of these characteristics, as well as their subjective beliefs that they will graduate with each major. After eliciting these baseline beliefs, we provide students with information on the true population distribution of these characteristics, and observe how this new information causes respondents to update their beliefs. Our experimental design creates unique panel data. We first show that respondents make substantial errors in population beliefs, and logically revise their self-beliefs in response to the information. Subjective beliefs about future major choice are positively and strongly associated with beliefs about self-earnings, ability, and spouse’s earnings. However, cross-sectional estimates are severely biased upward because of the positive correlation of tastes with earnings and ability. The experimental variation in beliefs allows us to identify a rich model of college major choice, with which we estimate the relative importance of earnings and earnings uncertainty on the choice of college major versus other factors, such as ability to complete coursework, spouse’s characteristics, and tastes for majors. While earnings are a significant determinant of major choice, tastes are the dominant factor in the choice of field of study. We also investigate why males and females choose different college majors.

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Bibliographic Info

Paper provided by Federal Reserve Bank of New York in its series Staff Reports with number 500.

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Date of creation: 2011
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:fip:fednsr:500

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Related research

Keywords: Universities and colleges ; Education - Economic aspects ; Social choice ; Demography ; Uncertainty ; Population;

References

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  1. Arcidiacono, Peter, 2002. "Ability Sorting and the Returns to College Major," Working Papers 02-26, Duke University, Department of Economics.
  2. Eide, Eric & Waehrer, Geetha, 1998. "The Role of the Option Value of College Attendance in College Major Choice," Economics of Education Review, Elsevier, vol. 17(1), pages 73-82, February.
  3. Lance Lochner, 2007. "Individual Perceptions of the Criminal Justice System," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 97(1), pages 444-460, March.
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  5. Katja Kaufmann, 2008. "Understanding the Income Gradient in College Attendance in Mexico: The Role of Heterogeneity in Expected Returns to College," Discussion Papers 07-040, Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.
  6. Basit Zafar, 2011. "How Do College Students Form Expectations?," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 29(2), pages 301 - 348.
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  8. Todd R. Stinebrickner & Ralph Stinebrickner, 2011. "Math or Science? Using Longitudinal Expectations Data to Examine the Process of Choosing a College Major," NBER Working Papers 16869, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  9. Basit Zafar, 2009. "College major choice and the gender gap," Staff Reports 364, Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
  10. Todd Stinebrickner & Ralph Stinebrickner, 2008. "Learning About Academic Ability and the College Drop-Out Decision," University of Western Ontario, CIBC Centre for Human Capital and Productivity Working Papers 20086, University of Western Ontario, CIBC Centre for Human Capital and Productivity.
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  18. Adeline Delavande, 2012. "HIV/AIDS-related Expectations and Risky Sexual Behavior in Malawi," 2012 Meeting Papers 90, Society for Economic Dynamics.
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  22. Jeanne Lafortune, 2013. "Making Yourself Attractive: Pre-marital Investments and the Returns to Education in the Marriage Market," American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, American Economic Association, vol. 5(2), pages 151-78, April.
  23. Mark C. Berger, 1988. "Predicted future earnings and choice of college major," Industrial and Labor Relations Review, ILR Review, Cornell University, ILR School, vol. 41(3), pages 418-429, April.
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  25. Julian R. Betts, 1996. "What Do Students Know about Wages? Evidence from a Survey of Undergraduates," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 31(1), pages 27-56.
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Citations

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Cited by:
  1. Sjoquist, David L. & Winters, John V., 2013. "State Merit-Aid Programs and College Major: A Focus on STEM," IZA Discussion Papers 7381, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
  2. Reuben, Ernesto & Wiswall, Matthew & Zafar, Basit, 2013. "Preferences and Biases in Educational Choices and Labor Market Expectations: Shrinking the Black Box of Gender," IZA Discussion Papers 7579, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
  3. Ralph Stinebrickner & Todd R. Stinebrickner, 2013. "A Major in Science? Initial Beliefs and Final Outcomes for College Major and Dropout," NBER Working Papers 19165, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. Arcidiacono, Peter & Aucejo, Esteban & Hotz, V. Joseph, 2013. "University Differences in the Graduation of Minorities in STEM Fields: Evidence from California," IZA Discussion Papers 7227, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
  5. Todd Stinebrickner & Ralph Stinebrickner, 2013. "Academic Performance and College Dropout: Using Longitudinal Expectations Data to Estimate a Learning Model," NBER Working Papers 18945, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  6. Peter Arcidiacono & Esteban Aucejo & V. Joseph Hotz, 2013. "University differences in the graduation of minorities in STEM fields: evidence from California," LSE Research Online Documents on Economics 51564, London School of Economics and Political Science, LSE Library.
  7. Olivier Armantier & Scott Nelson & Giorgio Topa & Wilbert van der Klaauw & Basit Zafar, 2012. "The price is right: updating of inflation expectations in a randomized price information experiment," Staff Reports 543, Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
  8. Deryugina, Tatyana & Shurchkov, Olga, 2013. "Does Beauty Matter in Undergraduate Education?," MPRA Paper 53582, University Library of Munich, Germany.
  9. Matthew Wiswall & Basit Zafar, 2011. "Belief updating among college students: evidence from experimental variation in information," Staff Reports 516, Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

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