AP Exam Scores Impact College Major Choice

The choice of college major can have big implications for students’ long-term outcomes, such as lifetime earnings, but researchers have limited evidence on what helps shape this decision. New research by Christopher Avery (Harvard University), Oded Gurantz (Stanford University, College Board), Michael Hurwitz (College Board), and Jonathan Smith (Georgia State University) examined how Advanced Placement (AP), a national program that exposes high school students to a college-level curriculum, shapes students’ choice of college major.

They found that attaining higher AP exam scores increases the chances that a student majors in that exam subject by approximately 5 percent, with some individual exams demonstrating increases in major choice by as much as 30 percent.

The researchers estimated these impacts by comparing two students with nearly identical AP performance on the exam, but who receive different AP integer scores (e.g., 5 versus 4). Shifts in college major are largely driven by students’ behavioral response—such as having higher self-confidence from receiving a higher score—rather than differences in college credits earned from relatively higher AP integer scores.

So how can high schools, colleges, and policymakers influence students to major in particular subjects? One clear implication is that offering AP subjects and improving student performance on those exams will lead to more majors in that field. More broadly, this research indicates students are responding to well-timed positive feedback, and similar efforts to provide well-structured feedback in other contexts may achieve comparable results.

Read the full study in the Journal of Human Resources: “Shifting College Majors in Response to Advanced Placement Exam Scores,” by Christopher Avery, Oded Gurantz, Michael Hurwitz, and Jonathan Smith