Janaury 2013 Issue • Volume 41 • Issue 1

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Recruitment and Retention of Sociology Majors

ASA Research Department on the Profession and the Discipline

Recruiting and retaining students is a challenge for many sociology departments, even more so given the current economic climate and the growth of vocationally oriented majors. We examine these two issues with data from the first wave of the 2012 American Sociological Association’s Bachelor’s and Beyond survey. 

The first wave of the Bachelor’s and Beyond survey was distributed to graduating sociology majors during their final semester and approximately 2,500 students answered the survey, which asked them to report on why they chose to major in sociology, their satisfaction with the program, and the methods they use to search for jobs. Recruitment, or bringing students through the door, is measured by positive reasons for majoring in sociology including conceptual and vocational reasons. Retention is measured here by high levels of satisfaction with departmental experiences. This measure assumes that those who are satisfied with their experiences will not walk out the door. The survey results suggest that increasing student recruitment and retention may require faculty members to pay attention to both teaching concepts and skills as well as helping students prepare for jobs.


Figure 1: Top 10 Reasons for Majoring in Sociology: 2012

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The survey requested that students respond to 11 reasons for majoring, either by selecting that it was an important reason for their choosing sociology as a major or that it was not an important reason. Overall, respondents reported majoring for positive or “substantive” reasons, while “convenience” reasons were the least popular (see Figure 1). The five top reasons can be described as conceptual or change-oriented and the next four could be categorized as vocationally oriented. An overwhelming majority of senior majors responding to the survey (97.2 percent) report that their interest in sociological concepts was an impor­tant reason for majoring, making it the number one reason. Many respondents (88 percent) reported that they were “hooked” after enjoying their first sociology course. Understanding how individuals function within different socioeconomic situations, understanding their own lives, and a desire to change society round out the top five reasons for majoring.

Although conceptual reasons for majoring were picked as most important. Cluster analysis revealed that the categories were not exclusive. The largest cluster (52.2 percent) combines vocational as well as conceptual reasons. This suggests that students wish to learn both sociological concepts and to be prepared for post-graduation careers. The second largest group, about one-third, was more likely to major for conceptual reasons alone. The smallest group majored for neither set of reasons; this includes those who ma­jored for reasons of convenience (e.g., fewer courses required). Thus, as Little (2012) suggests in a July 3 Huffington Post article, sociology is a major that can provide students with intellectual understanding of current social realities as well as sci­entific skills that can be used for career advancement. The majority of respondents appear to agree that both types of reasons are important for choosing sociology.


While these reasons shed light on how departments can recruit potential sociology majors, what factors result in satisfaction with majors?  To find out whether majoring in sociology was related to levels of satisfaction, respondents were asked nine questions about their levels of satisfaction with aspects of their undergraduate experience as sociology majors. Based on factor analysis of these items, an overall Satisfaction Scale was created. The most important reasons students indicated for choosing to major in sociology were: heard good things about the department, preparation for graduate or professional school, and preparation to do different kinds of research. (For the complete table, “Satisfaction by Reason for Majoring in Sociology,” see page 4 of the research brief www.asanet.org/documents/research/pdfs/Bachelors_and_Beyond_2012_Brief1_Satisfaction.pdf)

The reasons students choose to major in sociology have a significant impact on their satisfaction levels. Students who thought that the major would prepare them for the job that they wanted were equally satisfied compared to those who majored because the concepts interested them, sug­gesting once again that students major for both career and conceptual reasons. In contrast, respondents who majored for convenience reasons (e.g., because they could add the major eas­ily or because the major required fewer credit hours) were less satisfied with their experiences.

Concluding Strategies

These findings suggest strategies for bringing majors through the door, as well as for retaining them. We suggest five such strategies.

  1. Departments should emphasize in the classroom all three types of reasons for majoring. These are: (1) how concepts can help students to understand the changing social world and their own experiences within it; (2) how conceptual understanding can help to bring about social change; and (3) how the sociology major can prepare students for careers (including learning research skills). Faculty should not limit their teaching to only one area, in spite of the specific subject area.
  2. Departments should highlight the ways in which the conceptual and methodological skills that sociology students learn can be used effectively on résumés, in job interviews, and in the job market (Spalter-Roth and Van Vooren 2009).
  3. Departments should highlight that sociology majors report being satisfied with their experiences. Such data can be useful for recruiting new majors to programs.
  4. Departments should stress that students who master the conceptual knowledge and methodological skills associated with the major are more likely than others to be satisfied with their experiences.

Two new research briefs from this study, What Leads to Student Satisfaction with Sociology Programs? and Recruiting Sociology Majors: What Are the Effects of the Great Recession? Concepts, Change, and Careers,are on ASA’s website and can provide more information on these issues: www.asanet.org/research/briefs_and_articles.cfm#degrees%20and%20majors.

The ASA is grateful to the Sociology Program at the National Science Foundation for funding this study.


Little, Daniel. 2012. Why a Sociology Major? Huffington Post College. Retrieved July 3, 2012 (www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-little/college-sociology-major_b_164154.html?utm).

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