As parents, we can get very worried about the major our son or daughter chooses. This worry is not without merit: what major your son or daughter picks, and whether or not your child sticks with it, may impact not only his or her college experience, but also your wallet, as longer extended college experiences lead to extended tuition payments. However, there is no need to panic: if your child doesn’t know what she wants to do, she is not alone. Going in undecided is hardly an uncommon phenomenon.
Several years ago, in an issue of Black Issues In Higher Education E. St. John suggested that, “There is, perhaps, no college decision that is more thought-provoking, gut wrenching and rest-of-your-life oriented—or disoriented—than the choice of a major” (St. John, 2000, p. 22). While this may seem slightly hyperbolic, there is some truth in it: choosing a major is a choice that should be intentional and based on knowledge of one’s self, and when the wrong choice is made, the implications can be harsh. From the perspective of parents footing the bill for a four year institution the key to graduating in four years may be picking a major early and sticking with it. College and university administrators have begun implementing various types of institutional resources to assist undecided students when choosing a major, however, not all students are likely to come to college prepared to choose a major. An estimated 20 to 50 percent of students enter college as “undecided”. In fact, a new report suggests students who change their major as late as senior year are more likely to graduate from college than students who settle on one the second they set foot on campus.
The report, published by the Education Advisory Board, a research and consulting firm based in Washington, D.C., questions the suggestion that changing majors is keeping students in college past their intended graduation date and driving up their debt. Instead of looking at when students first declared a major, the EAB's study explored the connection between students' final declaration and how it affected their time to degree and graduation rates. Most students -- as many as 80 percent in some surveys -- will switch majors at one point during their time in college. According to the report, students who made a final decision as late as the fifth term they were enrolled did not see their time to graduation increase. Even one-quarter of the students who landed on a final major during senior year graduated in four years, the EAB found. Settling on a final major during the second through eighth terms of enrollment did not influence students’ graduation rates, either. Students who declared a new major during any of those terms posted a graduation rate of between 82 and 84 percent.
A better explanation of these numbers can be found by looking at the College Student Journal survey. More than 800 students who were asked to elaborate on their major decision-making process. Factors that played a role included a (1) general interest the student had in the subject he or she chose, (2) family and peer influence, and (3) assumptions about introductory courses, potential job characteristics, and characteristics of the major. While these may seem like valid reasons at first glance, the study ultimately implied that students are choosing a major based on external influence and unfounded assumption rather than a thorough understanding of their own personal goals and values.
It might be worthwhile to acknowledge that most students will not be developmentally ready to make effective decisions such as choosing a major. If choosing a major actually means choosing one’s goals, values, and interests based on intentional self-reflection and understanding of one’s self, then first-year students may simply not be ready.
Fortunately, it is not all bad news; there are practical solutions to address this inherent disconnect. The simplest is to take some summer school classes at a local community college or apply for an internship in the area of prospective interest. Both of these will immerse the student in the course work or career in which they anticipate interests and allow for an accurate assessment of actual fit. Prospective freshmen, be they ready or not to choose a major before or in the first year of school will still benefit from undergoing a structured period of self-reflection. Ultimately, a student who makes an informed decision based on personal goals and values will be more engaged in the college experience and more successful academically, personally, and professionally.