Working Papers   133

Upper Secondary School Tracking and Major Choices in Higher Education: To Switch or Not to Switch

Published: 30-Mar-2022
Keyword: Academic tracking, major choice, major switching, STEM, Cambodia
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Strengthening the quality of education, science and technology education is one of the four strategic rectangles of Rectangular Strategy Phase IV and at the heart of Cambodia’s ambition to achieve higher-middle-income status by 2030 and high-income status by 2050. To that end, increasing attention has been paid to improving both the quantity and quality of science education from secondary school through higher education. Empirically, it has been demonstrated that upper secondary school science can play a significant role in inspiring students to pursue STEM majors in higher education. Yet, there is evidence of a mismatch between student interest in STEM at upper secondary school and in higher education in Cambodia. Nearly 80 percent of upper secondary school students enrol in the science track, but only about 30 percent of tertiary students pursue a STEM major. Previous studies have investigated how students choose higher education majors in general and STEM fields of study in particular; however, they do not offer in-depth insights into the switch from the science track at upper secondary school to non-STEM majors in higher education, patterns of switches, and the characteristics of switchers versus non-switchers. Towards filling this knowledge gap, the twofold aim of this study was to detail the switches and the patterns of switches from upper secondary school to higher education, and to investigate the factors that have influences on students’ decision to switch or not to switch when they choose their majors in higher education after they graduate from upper secondary education.

The study draws on data collected from 1,338 university students in 21 HEIs in Cambodia in 2020. A two-stage sampling approach was employed for the selection of the students. In the first stage, HEIs were randomly selected using probability proportional to size sampling approach and in the second stage, students are randomly selected from the HEIs. Descriptive statistics and statistical tests were used to examine the switching patterns and the characteristics of switchers and probit modelling was employed to find factors associated with students’ switching decisions. To check for differences between the total sample and subsamples, the second analysis was performed using three sample groups – total sample, science subgroup and social science subgroup.

The results indicated that Cambodian upper secondary school students are more likely than not to switch academic majors when they enter higher education. The tendency to switch is more common for female science-track students, most of whom chose non-STEM majors such as business, management, accounting and finance. The findings also highlighted differences by gender, school type and school location. Female students, private school students, and urban school students are more likely than their counterparts to switch from science to other nonscience majors.

Probit analysis of the full sample revealed that science-track students are more likely to switch to a non-STEM major at university than social-track students to switch to a STEM major. The decision to switch is influenced by students’ gender, academic performance and interest in science and mathematics at upper secondary school, family socioeconomic status, and higher education institution (HEI) location. . From the school level – upper secondary school and HEI – upper secondary school factors did not have any significant influence on the probability of switching majors. Rather, the choice about whether to switch or not tended to be influenced by HEI location. Analysis indicates that upper secondary science-track students are more likely to switch to non-STEM majors if they are pursuing higher education in Phnom Penh.

Further, scholarship recipients are less likely to switch from science to non-STEM major. This might reflect the fact that science-track students from wealthier families have recourse to more financial resources to pursue non-STEM related majors, commonly in popular business-related HEIs in Phnom Penh. Also, as students from wealthier families have fewer financial constraints, being a scholarship beneficiary might not be a significant factor affecting their desire to switch. Conceptually, the study findings reinforced the three conceptual foundations which emphasised that students’ decisions to pursue or switch from science are associated with individual ability and preference, family support and encouragement, and support and challenges at upper secondary school and university.

The study has also shed light on some practical implications. First, because encouraging students’ interest in science and mathematics matters more than ever, teaching approaches that create opportunities for students to engage in practical classroom activities and stimulate their curiosity in science and mathematics should be considered. Efforts to optimise learning experiences should therefore focus on creating a highly interactive teaching-learning environment as a cognitive-activation strategy for promoting students’ interest and enjoyment of the subjects they are studying. Also, information about college majors and careers in STEM, targeted at underrepresented female subgroups, should be considered. As quality matters, entrance exam criteria for switchers should also be considered so that more qualified students are doing the same track from upper secondary school to higher education.

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