Exploring Academic Major Choice and Self-Efficacy in a Shifting Landscape: Low-Income Undergraduate Students and Pursuit of the Humanities Degree

Whitley, Sarah, Education - Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Inkelas, Karen, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia

Relying upon explanatory mixed methods (Creswell, 2002, 2003, 2007; Tashakkori & Teddlie, 2003), this study investigated the academic decision-making of low-income undergraduate students with interest in humanities majors. The purpose of this study was to consider the influences, including those internal and external to the college environment as well as occurring prior to and during college, that shaped low-income students’ self-efficacy and academic decision-making at different points in the process. Moreover, this study sought to understand the barriers encountered by students in academic decision-making and to identify the supports recognized by students as improving their confidence in successfully choosing a major. Given the negative post-Recession climate surrounding humanities study and a rise in focus on and funding for majors deemed vocational or pre-professional, this study examined why low-income students still express interest in humanities fields and whether majoring in these disciplines may be a benefit to this marginalized population.

Using Social Cognitive Career Theory (Lent, Brown & Hackett, 1994, 2000, 2002) and Bronfenbrenner’s (1979, 1993) Ecological Systems Theory as frameworks for considering goals, outcomes, efficacy, and environmental influences, this study considered the following research questions:

▪ What influences low-income undergraduate students to pursue academic majors in humanities disciplines? 

▪ In what ways are low-income undergraduate students' senses of academic self- efficacy regarding their choice of major shaped through experiences and influences within the college and external environments? 

▪ What college and external environments or experiences, specifically, shape the
major choice process for low-income undergraduate students interested in humanities disciplines?

Despite indicating humanities interest at the time of admission and identifying humanities-related interests in high school academic and extracurricular experiences, students were also encouraged to consider pre-professional majors by their immediate family and high school educators. The influence of parents and teachers, along with feeling connected to an academic discipline prior to entering college, improved confidence and self-efficacy in the pre-college major choice. However, upon entry, students identified multiple barriers (e.g., lack of information, poor faculty and advisor support, academic difficulties, shifting interests) that prompted a need to consider other majors and resulted in declines in decision-making efficacy. Students in the study sought mentoring relationships with older peers, returned to hobbies and interests as inspiration for major choice, and identified small, supportive academic communities as the supports necessary for regaining self-efficacy and choosing a major. Moreover, students reported finding these desired supports within humanities disciplines. Additionally, the presence of a comprehensive institutional aid model offered students unexpected freedom and flexibility in academic decision-making.

The study’s findings offer support for the use of Social Cognitive Career Theory (SCCT) (Lent, Brown & Hackett, 1996; Lent, 2005) and Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory (1979; 1993) as frameworks for exploring academic decision-making. Suggestions are offered for extending the use of SCCT to include college, major, and career choice as well as development of a consistent adaptation of Bronfenbrenner’s model specific to higher education research. The study’s findings offer support for considering how comprehensive financial aid models can be expanded to benefit students at varying types of institutions, continuing improvement in federal financial aid policies for low-income students, and reconsidering widespread funding cuts across humanities degree programs. For practitioners, the study findings suggest that students, and influential individuals, need better major choice information prior to college and for this information to be delivered with greater intention throughout matriculation. Moreover, findings support initiatives for greater awareness of faculty and staff regarding the barriers and supports identified in the major choice process for marginalized students alongside consideration of formalized mentoring programs for student support from consistent and knowledgeable resources. Recommendations are made not only for improvements in how humanities programs are marketing degree options and outcomes but, reciprocally, for non-humanities faculty to learn about ways in which the humanities foster learning environments favored by low-income students.

As this study considered a specific population at a selective institution, findings are not intended to be generalizable. However, the findings presented offer significant opportunity for future research including comparison samples across institutions of varying selectivities, financial aid models, academic disciplines, and peer groups. Moreover, additional research exploring the informal development of academic mentoring relationships with peers, student perceptions of humanities faculty, and reported pervasive struggles with connecting majors with personal and career goals is recommended.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
higher education, academic major choice, academic self-efficacy, low-income students, humanities
Issued Date: