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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
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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. Pierre-André Chiappori & Murat Iyigun & Yoram Weiss, 2009. "Investment in Schooling and the Marriage Market," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 99(5), pages 1689-1713, December.
  2. Basit Zafar, 2013. "College Major Choice and the Gender Gap," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 48(3), pages 545-595.
  3. Montmarquette, Claude & Cannings, Kathy & Mahseredjian, Sophie, 2002. "How do young people choose college majors?," Economics of Education Review, Elsevier, vol. 21(6), pages 543-556, December.
  4. Lance Lochner, 2007. "Individual Perceptions of the Criminal Justice System," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 97(1), pages 444-460, March.
  5. Magali BEFFY & Denis FOUGERE & Arnaud MAUREL, 2009. "Choosing the Field of Study in Post-Secondary Education : Do Expected Earnings Matter ?," Working Papers 2009-14, Centre de Recherche en Economie et Statistique.
  6. Arcidiacono, Peter, 2002. "Ability Sorting and the Returns to College Major," Working Papers 02-26, Duke University, Department of Economics.
  7. Eckel, Catherine C. & Grossman, Philip J., 2008. "Differences in the Economic Decisions of Men and Women: Experimental Evidence," Handbook of Experimental Economics Results, Elsevier.
  8. Blass, Asher & Lach, Saul & Manski, Charles, 2008. "Using Elicited Choice Probabilities to Estimate Random Utility Models: Preferences for Electricity Reliability," CEPR Discussion Papers 7030, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
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  14. Jeanne Lafortune, 2012. "Making Yourself Attractive: Pre-Marital Investments and the Returns to Education in the Marriage Market," Documentos de Trabajo 422, Instituto de Economia. Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile..
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  18. Delavande, Adeline, 2005. "Pill, Patch or Shot? Subjective Expectations and Birth Control Choice," CEPR Discussion Papers 4856, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  19. Basit Zafar, 2009. "How do college students form expectations?," Staff Reports 378, Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
  20. 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.
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  22. Pencavel, John, 1998. "Assortative Mating by Schooling and the Work Behavior of Wives and Husbands," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 88(2), pages 326-29, May.
  23. 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.
  24. Murat Nick & P. Randall Walsh, 2007. "Building the Family Nest: Premarital Investments, Marriage Markets, and Spousal Allocations," Review of Economic Studies, Oxford University Press, vol. 74(2), pages 507-535.
  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.
  26. Adeline Delavande, 2012. "HIV/AIDS-related Expectations and Risky Sexual Behavior in Malawi," 2012 Meeting Papers 90, Society for Economic Dynamics.
  27. Suqin Ge, 2011. "Women’s College Decisions: How Much Does Marriage Matter?," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 29(4), pages 773 - 818.
  28. 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.
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Citations

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Cited by:
  1. 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.
  2. Peter Arcidiacono & Esteban Aucejo & V. Joseph Hotz, 2013. "University Differences in the Graduation of Minorities in STEM Fields: Evidence from California," CEP Discussion Papers dp1223, Centre for Economic Performance, LSE.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
  5. 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).
  6. 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.
  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. 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.
  9. Deryugina, Tatyana & Shurchkov, Olga, 2013. "Does Beauty Matter in Undergraduate Education?," MPRA Paper 53582, University Library of Munich, Germany.

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