College & Workforce Readiness

The Best College Advice Is From the Working World, and Few Students Get It

By Catherine Gewertz — September 25, 2017 3 min read
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People who went to college say that advice from mentors in the working world is the kind that was most helpful in choosing a major—more valuable than advice from counselors, teachers, or family members. But it’s also the type of advice that students get the least, according to a study released Tuesday.

The report, by Gallup and the Strada Education Network, found that minority and low-income students, and students who are the first in their families to attend college, are at a particular disadvantage in getting advice on college majors. Those groups of students have less access to the informal work, social and school networks that can yield helpful advice about what to study in college, the study found.

The findings led Gallup and Strada to call for stepped-up efforts to link students with the world of work, through experiences such as apprenticeships and internships, so they can connect to people who can offer helpful guidance about college majors.

“This is especially true for first-generation, low-income and minority students who depend the most on sources of advice beyond their informal personal network, but have the least access to these resources,” William D. Hansen, the president and CEO of Strada Education Network, a nonprofit that focuses on helping students find “purposeful pathways” through college, wrote in a message accompanying the report.

The study is the second in a series of reports by Gallup and Strada about college decisions. The first, in June, found that more than one-third of those who went to college regretted their choice of major. The second report was designed to dig into those regrets by exploring how students made their decisions about what to study.

The new report is based on telephone interviews with about 22,000 adults who completed associate or bachelor’s degrees, or finished some college courses without earning a degree. Researchers asked those adults what resources or people they had sought out for advice, and how helpful they found that advice.

The researchers grouped people’s responses into four categories. Here they are, in order of most-frequently-cited as a source of advice:

  • Informal social network: Family, friends, community leaders (55 percent)
  • Formal: Sources focused on providing college advice, including high school and college counselors, and print and online resources (44 percent)
  • Informal school-based: High school teachers and coaches, college faculty or other staff not typically focused on a counseling role (32 percent)
  • Informal work-based: Employers, coworkers, people with experience in the field, military sources (20 percent)

First-generation students were much less likely than those with college-educated parents to seek advice about their major from an informal social network, the study found. That puts them at a disadvantage; students whose parents went to college can make use of their parents’ college experience, and are more likely to be exposed to others who have gone to college, the report said.

Only 47 percent of first-generation students sought advice from informal social networks, but 60 percent of those whose parents earned bachelor’s degrees, and 65 percent of those whose parents earned graduate degrees, did so, according to the study.

When it comes to advice from people in the working world, the researchers found it’s the most helpful to students, but the type they use least often.

Those who got advice from people with work experience were least likely to regret their choice of major. Only 31 percent of those who got that kind of guidance said they’d had second thoughts about their major, but more than one-third, and as many as 4 in 10, of those who got advice from other areas reported doubts.

For more information about college decisions, see also:

Five Things to Remember When Planning for College, by People Who Study It

Photo: Getty Images

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.