The current process of selecting a major is broken.
When beginning secondary education, students often find themselves pressured into selecting a field of research or study that will guide the remainder of their lives. From engineering, art studies and social sciences, each college student must select a major to proceed toward their degree and graduation.
However, it is oftentimes a debilitating question with a constantly changing answer. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 30% of students, by their junior year, end up switching majors. Declaring a major, for many, is comparable to selecting a university to attend, and is just as important for the future.
As it stands, the pressure to select a major early is intense. Degree programs require multiple courses and preliminary steps to advance toward graduation. If you have not promptly selected a major, you are behind.
Pressure from other students is abundant, too. A commonly asked question in the classroom is what your major is. If you do not have an answer, it can be embarrassing.
We need to change how the selection of a major operates.
The social norm that we choose what field to work in at 18 years old is overwhelming. If we were all able to retire at the age of 66, we would spend nearly half of a century — 48 years — in a field we selected at the same age when we were barely old enough to vote. In the three years of study directly following that decision, most students would not even be allowed to legally drink. Yet, we are expected to predetermine the rest of our lives with little to no experience in the field of our choice.
However, there is another option.
General education courses should always be front-loaded for the first handful of semesters at a new university, regardless of a declared major. This would help students finish any preliminary course work and segment their learning experience. Next, a more proactive outreach program should exist for every major: fairs, lectures, emails and one-on-one meetings. Perhaps even a short class could be offered to introduce students to the basics of each major before they are sent to find out more about the prospective fields.
Many universities already offer programs similar to this idea. For example, Valencia College in Orlando, Florida, offers something called a “meta-major.” A meta-major is a collection of related courses that students can take to further define their interests in a broader field. These meta-majors help students find what their preferred studies are and give them a wide range of disciplines to smooth their transition into a major. An on-campus comparison for NAU students would be the School of Communication’s communication studies major.
As for students who know what they want their majors to be, I implore you to at least consider other options. Universities are full of varying majors and programs. NAU, for example, offers over 100 bachelor’s degree options for students to pursue, according to the most recent online NAU academic catalog. It is worthwhile to explore the many facets of on-campus programs before deciding a major.
Furthermore, we need to change the student culture surrounding undeclared students.
It is not always apparent, but being asked what you’re majoring in can be a very complicated question. It is generally fine to ask someone, but reactions to their answers are telling. The undeclared major answer is often met with rushed propositions to join someone else’s major or personal questions relating to a student’s interests so that another person can decide for them. It is oftentimes treated like a game.
A student’s interests do not always dictate their preferred field of study. Having a green thumb does not automatically make you a botany major, just as the ability to make a decent meal does not make you a culinary student.
Students need to change the culture around majors before a solution can be found. While the programs are a systematic construction of the institution, our personal biases play an equally disruptive hand in the issue of students selecting majors they are not comfortable or happy in.
Selecting a major is often marred by constrictive progression from universities and peer pressure from students. A major can be a wonderful, enthralling community for many, but the immediate demand to select one is undue stress and worry for new students attending university directly after high school.
Systems to protect and foster varying interests should be widely available and active for students to make informed decisions that will govern the rest of their professional lives.
Students deserve better. University is the diving board of life, and we owe it to every attending scholar to not push them over the edge. Let them take a few hops, dip their toes in and dive in when they’re ready.