Choosing and Changing Majors: Status Quo or A New Standard?


The following graphic is from The College Board. We’ll start the discussion here.Is Changing Majors OK?

From the quote in the green bubble, “It’s okay to change your plans even if it means changing your major.” Well, yes, if you find yourself going in the wrong direction, change direction. But The College Board position, and that of most colleges and universities, is that changing majors multiple times to “find yourself” is okay. It isn’t. What it tells me is that the student didn’t do the work to determine a career path prior to showing up at college.

Many colleges and universities report the statistics that support the 2005 article by MSNBC.com that indecision about what major to choose can prove very expensive.  According to Dr. Fritz Grupe, founder of majors.com, eighty percent of college-bound graduating high school students have yet to choose a major before arriving on campus.

With tuition averaging $18,000 or higher in 2012-2013 at public universities, and much higher at private universities, indecisiveness can drain college savings accounts as students restart course sequences or transfer schools – losing credits in the process. Ultimately the result is that the student extends their college days beyond the four years parents planned to finance.

According to College Board, five- and  six-year students are not uncommon. Roughly 40% of those who start a four-year degree program still have not earned one after year six!

There are a variety of good reasons for dragging a college career into its fifth and sixth years—from taking time off for foreign study, to taking advantage of internships and co-ops or needing to balance academics with part-time employment to pay tuition. But changing majors is the one thing that drives up an education’s cost while potentially driving down a student’s self-esteem. It is also the easiest to avoid.

Bad Advice?

There are many (too many) assessments that aren’t valid and reliable. There are also “exercises” that professional counselors recommend if you don’t have access to professional tools such as valid and reliable assessments.

Kate Brooks, director of liberal arts career services at the University of Texas at Austin, thinks surveys can help focus a student’s attention on potential courses of study but she warns about the the students tendency to apply the results too inflexibly. “Often a student will say, ‘the test says I should be a florist, so that’s what I have to be,’” she says. A valid and reliable assessment and process doesn’t result in one career choice. A student that has that belief wasn’t counseled properly and was most likely not using a valid and reliable assessment instrument.

“Nationally, we see statistics quoted that as many as 80% of all college students change their major or that the average college student changes his/her major an average of 3-5 times. If you were able to count how many times students change their mind about what they want to do after graduation, it would be much higher. “
University of Missouri • MU Career Center, 2010
Student Success Center

Rather than properly designed, validated and reliable assessments, Brooks favors an exercise to help undecideds identify and translate interests into majors and eventually careers they will succeed in and enjoy.

She sends students to the nearest Barnes & Noble to browse the magazine racks. They are instructed to buy the three magazines they find most interesting. “We then discuss what prompted them to buy those magazines. It may be they chose Newsweek because they are interested in current events and politics. Or possibly there was an article in ESPN about nutritional sports bars. We talk about how pursuing chemistry could lead them to create a better bar or sports drink. Or maybe it is the marketing aspect that appeals to them — the ads. The point is to help them understand what things excite them and what careers are connected to those things, and which majors would lead them to those careers,” explains Brooks.

That exercise is wonderful but too simplistic. Choosing a career and the best major for that career direction is a little more complicated than that.

Tips for helping your student choose major

What can parents do to help their children get through college in a timely fashion while staying passionate about their choice of major? Here are some suggestions I think are worthy of considering:

  • Refrain from pressuring children into making quick choices or pursuing majors associated with high income professions. Not everyone should or can be a doctor or a lawyer.
  • Focus attention on pursuing courses of interest based on a career direction, even if the immediate relationship to a major or career is not obvious.
  • Double-majoring is a great way to keep opportunities open. With good planning in high school, double-majoring is not only very doable, it may very well be more interesting and provide an extra level of motivation and self esteem.
  • Encourage participation in job shadowing — going to work with people to see what their jobs actually entail and asking people they meet how they got into their careers. While in high school, interview people in the career of interest that are passionate and successful. Parents can help set this up.
  • If they do enter school undecided, engage in a career coaching program that provides professional-grade (highly valid and reliable) assessments and a process that leads to clarity and good decisions. It doesn’t hurt that the program will also assist in a broader sense of creating success across the bigger picture of life.
  • Refrain from giving advice based on the job market of twenty-some years ago or the “parent ego”. Today’s employers need a different kind of worker and favor different degrees. Many parents see their own career as a great direction for their son or daughter. Genetics may have played a part in creating that awesome son or daughter but choosing a career is a highly individualized event.
  • Urge them to take full advantage of campus advisory services to avoid floundering, shifting from one course of study to the next, and prolonging their dissatisfaction and their academic careers. While I am generally strongly negative in my bias about college advisory competencies when it comes to assisting students in choosing a career direction and then matching potentials majors for that career, if you are taking any of the other advice above, this may not be necessary but it is usually the first option. students rely on and is the one option with the greatest gap between expectation of value and actual value. Just keep in mind, you might be told to go to the local magazine store to find your career.
  • Help them understand that a major is not a career. There are multiple paths to most careers, just as there are multiple careers that can be had from a single major. Encourage them to explore their options. Having a career direction is much more powerful than choosing a major.
  • Help them prepare academically before arriving at college to avoid spending their high-priced time on remedial or review classes.
  • If a child is undecided, consider seeking out a college with the resources to acquaint them with all the options to make a well-founded decision. Not all schools have or emphasize such programs.
  • Understand that the student-to-counselor ratio averages 450-to-1 nationally at the high school level. Do not rely on high school counselors to guide children through the exercise of choosing a major.

However they get there, encouraging children to think through their career interests before choosing a school or program can help them avoid future frustration, academic let-down or feelings of failure. It is also key to helping them graduate in four years and move into their ‘real’ lives before they out-spend their college savings accounts.

A more up-to-date and informative article is available.

2015 national webinar to be held in July for career exploration and planning that leads to choosing a major

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