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Articles / Majors & Careers / How is the Great Resignation Impacting College Students?

How is the Great Resignation Impacting College Students?

Joy Bullen
Written by Joy Bullen | Nov. 30, 2021

Low Enrollment, Understaffed Campuses, and New Career Goals: What the Great Resignation of 2021 Means for Students

When Mikhael Warith-Muhammad started at Radford University in Virginia, he was a nursing major. “When I first entered college, I really had no reason or purpose for being there, except for the influence of my mother and the obvious – college parties.” Mikheal said. “My motivation to become a nurse was 1) I looked amazing in scrubs 2) the classes were majority women. Long story short, nursing didn’t work out for me because I failed Bio.... I had to dig deeper.”

Mikhael, who founded the YouTube channel All Thing College, is not alone. The pandemic provided an opportunity for many people to reassess their career goals and life path and make big changes. For workers, this looks like “the Great Resignation," a term coined by Texas A&M psychology professor Anthony Klotz to refer to the high number of people quitting or changing jobs in 2021. Klotz attributes this shift to the pandemic's impact on changing priorities and evolving attitudes about work and life. According to Klotz, "From organizational research, we know that when human beings come into contact with death and illness in their lives, it causes them to take a step back and ask existential questions. Like, what gives me purpose and happiness in life, and does that match up with how I'm spending my right now? So, in many cases, those reflections will lead to life pivots.” The media has popularized this explanation, though others argue that the workforce exodus may be better explained by stagnant wages, school closures, and an increasing demands on caretakers.

But what does the Great Resignation mean for college students? At the same time workers are leaving or changing jobs, college students are also experiencing their own major shifts. Some students are skipping or leaving college to fill open positions in the workforce, and others are changing their majors or career plans.

Financial Stress Shifts Students Towards Jobs or Higher-Earning Majors

Early in the pandemic, some students chose to drop out of college or not to start school at all. Among those that stayed, many chose to switch majors, and most opted for more "practical" choices. Majors in fields that were severely impacted by the pandemic took the hardest hits. According to one survey, the number of Aviation/ Aerospace majors declined by 24 percent between 2019 and mid-2020. Culinary Arts majors dropped by 56 percent during this same time, as restaurants across the country shuttered their doors and laid off staff.

Between 2019 and 2020, liberal arts and humanities majors also dipped by about 12 percent and education majors by 5 percent. On the other hand, higher-earning majors like computer science, business, and healthcare all became more popular. These shifts may be a result of increased economic stress felt by college students in the first six months of the pandemic. Around 40 percent of college students lost jobs early on in the pandemic, and even more had a parent that lost a job. This income loss and financial insecurity may be one reason that 11.4 percent fewer students from high-poverty high schools enrolled in college in Fall 2020 than in Fall 2019. The sharpest enrollment declines were seen among male students of color. At the same time, 90 percent of colleges students expressed concern about the job market and worried for their financial future.

College enrollment has not fully-rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. As of October 2021, the total number of students enrolled in college was 5.8 percent lower than the total enrolled in 2019, and 7.8 percent lower for community colleges. Many lower-income students who would previously have gone to college decided to go right to work, perhaps in response to financial insecurity exacerbated by the pandemic or perhaps to fill jobs left vacant by those who have left the workforce, many of which were in the service industry or retail. According to the Harvard Business Journal, workers aged 30-45 were the most likely to resign between 2020 and 2021. Workers between the aged 20-25 actually saw a decrease in resignations, which is surprising among a group that typically has high job turnover. To attract and retain employees, more companies are offering to pay for all or most of college tuition for full or part-time employees. These benefits may help students who left college to fill retail or service jobs earn their degrees.

For students who are enrolled, many are changing their majors, but for a different reason this time.

Reflection Guides Students Toward More Meaningful Careers

By 2021, layoffs were replaced by resignations, and college students seemed to be taking a different approach to career planning post-pandemic too. With classes mostly online and internships, sports, and activities, and parties on hold, many college students had a moment to pause and consider what they really want out of life. “Having to be more isolated does lend itself to more introspection,” Kevin Grubb, executive director of the career center as well as associate vice provost for professional development at Villanova told InsideHigherEd. “It’s been an interesting opportunity for everyone to take stock of what’s most important to them, and what they want to do next...the pandemic, the racial injustice we’ve seen, the political environment in this country – all of these things have brought values to the fore. What do you value?”

According to a Student Voices survey, 17 percent of students changed their majors and 24 percent changed their plans for after graduation plans because of COVID. Earlier worries about the the job market proved to be unfounded. After the initial economic fear and anxiety waned, college students found themselves entering a job market with plenty of opportunity and higher starting salaries than ever before. Some students shifted from looking for the highest-earning majors to looking for majors that would lead to a more impactful or fulfilling career. Education majors are on the rise again. Interestingly, early indicators from a survey done at Western Governors University show that health care majors may be declining in popularity after a few stressful years for healthcare workers. One former premed student who took the survey said, “After seeing the hardships and dismissal of their professional opinion that physicians faced during the pandemic, I decided that was not the role I wanted to play in health care after all.”

After determining that nursing wasn’t the right career path for him, Mikheal did some self-reflection to find a better fit. When a friend recommended he apply his creativity and strong interpersonal skills to a communications major, he transferred to Elon University to study communications. Then, inspiration struck.

“Covid hit, so that gave me all the time in the world and some, to really figure out what I wanted to do. Well, I realized I really didn’t know what to expect in college. I didn’t know how the classes were, how to make friends, what classes to take/not to take, so having that fear raised my guard.” Mikheal said. “The youtube videos that I looked up really didn’t help because nine times out of ten, it was a representative of the school giving tips. Which made me realize that I bet a lot of other people probably feel the same way that I do, so why not make something that would benefit my younger self and others?

Mikheal used what he was learning in his new major to fill the gap he saw. He founded All Things College and his series of videos called The College Tour, which give prospective students a behind-the-scenes glimpse of life at colleges like Duke, Clemson, and Georgia Tech. He take footage of the campuses, and asks real students questions that the admissions office doesn't always like to answer like, “What do you really think of the campus food?” Recently, Mikheal interviewed some of his classmates at Elon who also changed majors during the pandemic about why they made the switch. Watch the video below to see what majors each student chose and subscribe to All Things College to see more campus tour videos or request the next college for Mikheal to visit.

Student Voices: Why I Changed Majors

Hear from these Elon University students about why they changed majors after starting college.

Written by

Joy Bullen

Joy Bullen

Joy Bullen is College Confidential's Senior Editor and Head of Content. She is a graduate of Kenyon College, where she majored in English and Creative Writing. She also earned a master’s in Psychology from The New School for Social Research in NYC.

Before becoming a full-time writer and editor, Joy coached thousands of prospective and enrolled college students on admissions and academic and career success. She also managed a team of academic and career coaches and consulted with universities on how to create programs that have better outcomes for students.

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