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Earlier this year, a first-generation college student told a disturbing story in The Hechinger Report. She was in her sixth year at a four-year college, having changed her major twice and taken time off because she lacked a clear roadmap of what she wanted and how to get there.
This, sadly, is not an unfamiliar tale.
Choosing a college major is one of the most important decisions students make. It influences everything from employment and earning potential to overall health and happiness. It fuels the lifeblood of our economy – a diverse talent pipeline with the skills and knowledge employers need from a 21st century workforce.
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Research shows that most students are lacking valued advice when making these decisions — and too many come to regret their choices later in life.
In the inaugural report from Education Consumer Pulse, a daily survey that asks thousands of U.S. adults about their educational paths and what shaped them, Strada Education Network and Gallup reported on the number of people who would change their educational paths if they had chance to do everything over. As it turns out, more than half of U.S. adults would change at least one of their educational decisions if they could make them again. Thirty-six percent said they would change their major.
The second Education Consumer Pulse report took a closer look at why so many people have second thoughts about their majors by exploring where students get advice when choosing their majors.
The findings confirm an urgent need to improve how students are supported when making choices about their majors. The survey found that work-based sources of advice — from direct experiences with employers, colleagues, or experienced professionals — are the most valued. But, these sources of advice are also the least available. More than 80 percent of graduates said work-based sources were helpful, well above the ratings assigned to even college or high school counselors. However, only about 20 percent of respondents said they got advice from such sources.
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This gap is especially troubling for first-generation and minority students, who depend most on sources of advice beyond their informal social networks, but too often have the least access to these resources. These students also reported receiving less guidance from school staff, such as teachers and guidance counselors, compared with peers with higher levels of parental education.
From the moment a student begins considering postsecondary education opinions, there are so many decisions they need to make. They must choose the size and type of campus and understand how tuition, fees, books, housing, travel and personal care costs all add up to the true cost of attendance.
They must select majors for which they are fully prepared and that will lead to good jobs. They must decide how many courses to take in the first year to prevent academic overload and poor performance. These considerations and more require guidance — and critical, in-depth research on our part, so we can help all students reach their fullest potential.
With knowledge comes power. When we understand, with precision, where gaps exist, we improve the odds of creating tools, supports and opportunities to develop both formal and informal systems to support the type of information-sharing these students need and deserve. As parents, mentors, policy makers, employers, educators and innovators, we all have a major influence on whether – and how – our students embark on a path of success.
A former U.S. deputy secretary of education, William Hansen is president and CEO of Strada Education Network.
Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. is CEO of the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund.
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