How to Switch Majors Without Taking on More College Debt

college debt

Liberal arts to law. Political science to phys ed. Algebra to journalism. At some time or another, many students make a sharp left turn in their collegiate studies by changing majors to something completely different than what they started off with.

Knowing with certainty what we want to do for the rest of our lives as a college freshman is rarer than you might think. According to the National Center of Education Statistics, about 80 percent of American college students will end up changing their college majors at least one time. Most students, notes the Center, switch majors up to an average of three times.

This is great news when it comes to finding your true calling in life, but even a single change from one major to another — or transferring schools, for that matter — can pose some negative financial problems and place you in the throes of more college debt.

Changing majors can create more college debt

If you’ve gone the federal route and taken out Direct subsidized loans to pay for tuition, your maximum loan disbursal eligibility is 150 percent of the time you’re enrolled in school.

For a 4-year bachelor’s degree, that means you’re eligible to receive loans for up to 6 years. That keeps even the longest of undergraduate programs covered financially, but if you transition from one major to another that requires more coursework, that may mean additional tuition and more college debt on top of what you already owe your lenders.

If you’re already a sophomore or junior and have taken classes specific to your original major, those may not count towards your new major if you decide to switch. You could end up owing tuition on courses that don’t count towards a new path of study, plus the prerequisites you’ll need to fulfill in your new major.

Depending on what your new major may be, this can be nothing short of a small fortune. For example, if you’re a computer science major, your average 4-year college cost is about $18,320 annually, according to data from Sallie Mae.

But make a radical change to pursue a degree in psychology, which averages approximately $29,507 in costs, and you could face as much as $11,000 in extra tuition and ancillary expenses.

Transferring schools can encourage debt, too

You can encounter a similar financial dilemma when trying to transfer college credits to a new school. If your new college or university doesn’t accept coursework from your alma mater, you may need to retake them (or the school’s equivalent curriculum), imposing more tuition costs to your balance owed.

Be careful about the timing of your transfer from one university to another. If you take a semester off before resuming your studies at a new school, your existing student loans could begin their 6-month grace period, meaning the clock will start ticking before you’re ready to pay them back.

Here’s another scenario: You transfer to a new school with a new major, but you want to try it out part-time to see if you like the new direction. If you attend below half-time status, your grace period will still start counting down. When it expires, you’ll owe money on your loans in addition to new educational costs.

So is changing majors really worth the financial consequences? Ask yourself some key questions and keep some of these tips in mind to lessen the financial impact.

1. Is changing your major necessary?

Not only will it take longer to graduate if you flip on your major, but it won’t be a focused effort to develop a mastery in one concentration — not to mention the burden of taking on more tuition and more interest-driven loans to pay for extra coursework.

If you’re an education major but you really want to switch to psychology, see if you can take on some psych courses (or even go for a minor) to get some academic experience in another discipline without abandoning one major for another. Try to find one major you’re passionate about, and that offers good, lucrative job opportunities, then stay the course.

2. Don’t delay your semesters.

If you already have student loans, you may be responsible for paying them off while still in school if you drop below a certain course load.

If you transfer schools or you want to try a new major part-time, don’t fall below half-time enrollment. The money you already borrowed will be due, with interest attached. To play it safe, delay enrolling in a new college until you sort out what you’d like to study as a major.

3. Exhaust other financial resources first.

Every year, fill out your FAFSA form regardless of your major. Qualifying for financial aid, scholarships, or grants is like receiving free money, lessening the amount of college debt you take on.

4. Don’t over-borrow on your loans.

Part of the problem with going into student loan debt may not be changing majors or trying to transfer college credits, but borrowing more money than you need.

Opt for federal loans first since interest rates are fixed, and no applicants are denied. Depending on your enrollment status, the interest you accrue may be paid in full with a subsidized loan. Do your research and see how much your prospective college or university costs to attend, then borrow only what you need.

5. Seek out extra income.

It could be a part-time job or an on-campus work study program subsidized by your school, but earning some side money is a smart way to ameliorate any financial burdens of attending college.

If your school schedule makes employment hard to fit in, get creative in the ways you can spend less to free up some money. Set a budget, stick with it, and use the money you may save towards paying down your student loans.

6. Accelerate your academic pace.

If changing your major is an absolute must and added loan costs are a necessary evil, there’s no better time to hit the books and aim for an early graduation. See how many extra classes you can take per semester without spreading yourself too academically thin. Can you manage to finish five years of classes in four?

Motivating yourself to finish your studies early means lower costs and fewer student loans borrowed, saving you money now and in the long run — no matter how many times you’ve changed majors or transferred schools.

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