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Determinants of college major choice: identification using an information experiment

  • Matthew Wiswall
  • Basit Zafar

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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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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  1. Montmarquette, C. & Cannings, C. & Mahseredjian,S., 1997. "How do Young People Choose College Majors?," Cahiers de recherche 9719, Centre interuniversitaire de recherche en économie quantitative, CIREQ.
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  3. 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.
  4. Arcidiacono, Peter, 2002. "Ability Sorting and the Returns to College Major," Working Papers 02-26, Duke University, Department of Economics.
  5. 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.
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  7. 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.
  8. Sarah E. Turner & William G. Bowen, 1999. "Choice of Major: The Changing (Unchanging) Gender Gap," ILR Review, Cornell University, ILR School, vol. 52(2), pages 289-313, January.
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  10. Asher A. Blass & Saul Lach & Charles F. Manski, 2008. "Using Elicited Choice Probabilities to Estimate Random Utility Models: Preferences for Electricity Reliability," NBER Working Papers 14451, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  11. Manski, Charles F., 2002. "Identification of decision rules in experiments on simple games of proposal and response," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 46(4-5), pages 880-891, May.
  12. 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.
  13. Wilbert van der Klaauw & Kenneth I. Wolpin, 2005. "Social Security and the Retirement and Savings Behavior of Low Income Households," PIER Working Paper Archive 05-020, Penn Institute for Economic Research, Department of Economics, University of Pennsylvania.
  14. Basit Zafar, 2013. "College Major Choice and the Gender Gap," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 48(3), pages 545-595.
  15. 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.
  16. Lance Lochner, 2003. "Individual Perceptions of the Criminal Justice System," NBER Working Papers 9474, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  17. Adeline Delavande, 2008. "Pill, Patch, Or Shot? Subjective Expectations And Birth Control Choice," International Economic Review, Department of Economics, University of Pennsylvania and Osaka University Institute of Social and Economic Research Association, vol. 49(3), pages 999-1042, 08.
  18. 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.
  19. repec:oup:qjecon:v:125:y:2010:i:2:p:515-548 is not listed on IDEAS
  20. Basit Zafar, 2009. "How do college students form expectations?," Staff Reports 378, Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
  21. 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.
  22. 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.
  23. Adeline Delavande, 2012. "HIV/AIDS-related Expectations and Risky Sexual Behavior in Malawi," 2012 Meeting Papers 90, Society for Economic Dynamics.
  24. Sarah E. Turner & William G. Bowen, 1999. "Choice of major: The changing (unchanging) gender gap," Industrial and Labor Relations Review, ILR Review, Cornell University, ILR School, vol. 52(2), pages 289-313, January.
  25. 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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  29. 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.
  30. 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.
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