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BOULDER, Colo. — Ingrid Dominguez can’t remember why, when she was applying to college, she decided she would major in business.
“I don’t really know, honestly,” Dominguez said. “Senior year in high school was just, like, ‘You have to decide what you want to do right now.’ ” And picking business “is what everybody else was doing.”
But Dominguez wasn’t chosen for the highly competitive business track when she was accepted to the University of Colorado Boulder — “a blessing in disguise,” she said, because it gave her the chance to take courses in science and health. And she enjoyed those so much she’s now majoring in integrative physiology with plans to open a chain of protein cafés.
“I tell people you’ll know when you’re in the right major. If you don’t feel it, it’s not the right major for you,” said Dominguez, 20, now a junior and a peer adviser to classmates who are undecided about what to study. “Just keep looking.”
That’s something CU Boulder and a handful of mostly small liberal arts colleges are encouraging at the very time when many other universities are going in the opposite direction and pushing their undergraduates to lock into a major early on.
“We’re trying to create an environment where it’s OK to change your mind, and it’s OK to not know what you want to do,” said James Murray, assistant director of advising at CU Boulder’s Exploration & Advising Center, a bright and airy space just off a sunny atrium in the three-year-old Center for Academic Success and Engagement, which also houses the admissions office on the distinctive campus of sandstone buildings with red roofs surrounded by the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
That approach is on one side of a widening divide over whether colleges should be places where students can explore until they find their passion or confer degrees as quickly, directly and efficiently as possible so graduates can promptly start to earn a living.
Dickinson College in Pennsylvania this summer is debuting a program called “Explore More: Jumpstart to Connecting the Dots” to help students consider their strengths and interests and what they might most like to study. Boston College is offering something similar, called True North — a reference to the geographic North Pole, rather than the magnetic pole of a compass — during orientation this summer, for the first time, to new students and their parents.
“We tell them, ‘Have your antennas up like explorers and take it all in, because we’re going to give you opportunities, almost like a buffet, to explore and discover,’ ” said MarySheila McDonald, until this summer dean of the School of Business at La Salle University in Philadelphia, another institution that encourages a less hurried way of deciding on majors.
McDonald kept a shadowbox in her office at La Salle inscribed with the J. R. R. Tolkien line “Not all who wander are lost.”
The movement also raises questions about who is being sped through the academic-major pipeline and who gets to enjoy the luxury of browsing; the almost paralyzing number of choices of majors at some schools; and the difficulty students have connecting vaguely labeled academic disciplines (“integrative physiology”) with real-world careers.
CU Boulder’s Program in Exploratory Studies began in 2019 for some students and was opened to all students last year. About a quarter of all new undergraduates signed up.
“I tell people you’ll know when you’re in the right major. If you don’t feel it, it’s not the right major for you. Just keep looking.”Ingrid Dominguez, junior, University of Colorado Boulder
They get personalized attention from a team of 10 advisers in a warren of offices hung with inspirational artwork and stocked with colorful brochures: “I want to … work outside.” “I want to … plan events.” “I want to … work in health care. How do I get there?”
At the time the program started, about 40 percent of students who declared a major when they arrived were changing it later, said Shelly Bacon, associate vice provost for advising and exploratory studies.
“We were just trying to get more intentional about creating this infrastructure for students who have long existed on our campus, who are exploring,” Bacon said. Without such help, “We might see students sticking with a major that might not be the best fit for them.”
That leads to dissatisfaction among a surprising proportion of students and graduates. More than a third of bachelor’s degree recipients nationwide said in a Gallup survey that they would go back and change their major if they could. Only about half of college students strongly agree that their major will lead to a good job; just over a third think they will graduate with the skills they need to be successful at work; and only about a quarter say their education was relevant to their daily life.
“They don’t have high levels of meaningfulness in their work, which is a terrible outcome for students and their families that spend so much money and time on higher education,” said Belle Liang, a professor of counseling, developmental and educational psychology at BC who helped develop True North.
But changing majors can throw students off track at a time when many are already taking longer than expected to finish college and concern about the cost of higher education — and the burden of the loans that many use to pay for it — makes them eager to get out into the workforce.
More than eight out of 10 first-year students say getting a good job is why they are pursuing a degree, according to a national survey by a research institute at UCLA.
“I do completely understand that drive to get students to declare earlier, because there’s a connection to, ‘We don’t want you lingering too long and increasing the amount of debt,’ ” said Bacon.
Indecision about a major has a bigger impact than is generally understood.
Seven percent of first-year students arrive at college not having picked a major, that national UCLA survey found. Of those who do choose right away, a third change their minds, the U.S. Department of Education says, and one in 10 switch majors two or more times.
“We’re trying to create an environment where it’s OK to change your mind, and it’s OK to not know what you want to do.”James Murray, assistant director of advising, Exploration and Advising Center, University of Colorado Boulder
This often means it takes them longer to graduate, increasing the time and cost of their college educations. It takes the average student at a four-year university nearly five years to graduate, the advocacy group Complete College America reports, and the typical bachelor’s degree recipient takes and pays for an average of 15 credits — an entire semester’s worth — more than was required. Some never finish.
Many colleges push students to pick their majors in the first semester of their first year.
“The response has been, ‘Let’s take choice away from them.’ How about if we help students make meaningful decisions?” said Timothy Klein, project lead of the True North program at BC.
In some cases, students now have to decide what they want to major in before they even apply to college, said Shonn Colbrunn, executive director of the Boerigter Center for Calling and Career at Hope College in Michigan.
“I do get it. I get the idea, especially at a liberal arts college where it costs a lot of money and a parent thinks, ‘I’m not so interested in taking a leap of faith.’ ”
But Colbrunn’s and other institutions are giving their students the latitude to leap. At Hope, incoming students take a test to determine their interests and a mandatory first-year course to learn about their major and career options.
“If you restrict choice and have students lock in sooner, it makes it easier to run your university,” Colbrunn said. “We don’t look at it that way. We’d rather have students figure out what’s right for them.”
Waiting to choose can ultimately translate into greater future job stability, according to one study in the U.K. It found that students in England, who declare the equivalent of university majors while still in high school, were more likely to later bounce around among careers than students in Scotland, who spend two years at university before they pick a specialty.
Advisers at Hope ask entering students what they want to do and why, so they can make the best-informed choices, said Colbrunn.
“They’ll say, ‘I want to be a doctor,’ ” Colbrunn said. “But why? Is that because your uncle is a doctor and that’s what you’ve been told you should do? Is that really where your heart’s at?”
Like others who do this work, he said many students arrive at college having followed the resume-building playbook or been closely guided by hovering parents, and haven’t had much practice making decisions on their own.
“Their parents have been, like, ‘Now you will go to soccer, and now you will study trombone,’ ” said Alzada Tipton, provost and dean of the faculty at Whitman College in Washington State, which gives students until the end of their sophomore year to pick a major.
“We definitely have people say, ‘Just tell me. Just tell me what I should major in,’ ” said Denée Janda, assistant director of academic coaching at the CU Boulder exploration center.
The daughter of a doctor, rising junior Caroline Schumann entered La Salle University in Philadelphia as a nursing major. But when she took a required first-year anatomy lab, she didn’t like it.
“I was so lost,” said Schumann, who is 19. Then she found herself in a marketing class she did like. She’s now a newly declared marketing major with a minor in digital arts and media.
Even at a university that lets students find their own way — La Salle allows its undergraduates to put off declaring a major until they find the right fit — Schumann said the process was traumatic.
“I was confused, I was upset. I thought, ‘I’m never going to change my major.’ I was so stressed out. I was also scared because I didn’t know what my parents would think. You shouldn’t go into college thinking. ‘I have to pick one major and stick with it forever.’ ”
There’s another reason to lighten up on pushing students pick a major: Jobs are shifting so quickly that a major may have less long-term importance than it once did.
Baby boomers held an average of more than 12 jobs between the ages of 18 and 52, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and millennials appear even more likely to move around in their careers; more than a fifth said they had changed jobs within the previous 12 months, another Gallup survey found.
“Most of these students are going to have not only multiple jobs by the time they’re 30,” Murray, in Boulder, said. “They’re going to have multiple career paths.”
The number of majors at many universities has also increased to a level that creates what Elizabeth Schroeder, who advises students undecided about their majors at La Salle, calls “options paralysis.” Students, Schroeder said, “get overwhelmed pretty quickly.”
CU Boulder, for example, offers 85 majors, minors and certificate programs.
It can also be hard to understand which majors lead to what jobs. “There’s not a linear connection between major X and ‘Become a professional X-er,’ ” Bacon, the associate vice provost, said.
Daisheau Player was thinking about going to law school when she started at Dickinson. But when she mentioned that she was also interested in chemistry, her adviser suggested that she take a class in it.
Now she’s a chemistry major interested in biomedical ethics and planning to go to medical school.
“I think a lot of people are worried about cost or what their parents think will make them a lot of money,” said Player, 21 and entering her senior year. But friends who have, like her, changed their majors “are much happier when they find out what they actually like.”
This isn’t a new idea. It’s an old one, said Tara Fischer, dean of academic advising at Dickinson. Using college as a time and place to search for purpose “used to be standard advice, especially for liberal arts students.”
But it’s not available to everyone. The kinds of places that are encouraging such exploration tend to enroll larger proportions of higher-income students than the places that allow less flexibility with majors, where lower-income students go.
Changing a major or even dropping a class is harder for the latter than the former, Murray, at CU Boulder, said.
“From an access standpoint and a cost standpoint, a kid who does get financial aid is going to be more worried than a kid who doesn’t get financial aid” about the kinds of repercussions that can come with waiting to declare, or changing, a major.
Browsing for a major “is often seen as a privilege and a luxury for students who don’t have to worry about money,” said BC’s Klein. “These schools that are more privileged, they have a little less bureaucracy, they can cut through this. But every student wants what we’re talking about. We just need to provide them the same opportunities.”
Added Tipton, the Whitman provost: “We’re denying some students in the name of academic success the experience of exploration.”
This story about choosing a major in college was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.