The (Undergraduate) Major Choices in the Economic Downturn
How has economic hardship influenced students’ selection of majors?The growing privatization of the American university system has increasingly defined education as a means to acquire well paid employment. This neoliberal idea about a university education involves lone individuals striving through their own hard work to achieve a degree that will grant them lucrative employment. This study investigates the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations that shape students’ decisions about their choices of majors. It then contrasts these to how students perceive the purpose of higher education as well as the social influences that shape these perceptions including family, peers, high school counselors, and teachers.
Our research design used qualitative, open-ended interviews of students at a Rocky Mountain West university. We employed purposive sampling of Business and Nursing majors because these fields have been portrayed as some of the most potentially lucrative. These are the students that should most embody the neoliberal ideology. We hypothesized that Business majors would be more extrinsically motivated while Nursing majors would display more intrinsic motivations.
In contrast to our bifurcated hypothesis, we identified four categories of students: intrinsic and extrinsic nursing, and intrinsic and extrinsic business majors. While there was much more overlap than we expected, the contrasts between the extrinsic nursing and business majors and between the intrinsic nursing and business majors proved most insightful. In particular, nursing majors were more extrinsically motivated by need, particularly with the economic downturn, while extrinsic business majors more strongly embodied neoliberal ideas about individualized success through high paying jobs, regardless of work content.