Episode 152: Choosing a College Because of a Major

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I come to our topic today with mixed feelings.  We have talked about it on numerous occasions and written about it in our books.  It’s a topic that lends itself to some data-based analysis, but I have to say that it also causes me to think about my own philosophy about academics and what is important and what isn’t.  So, this is a big topic, and it is college majors.

As I have been working with students during this round of college applications, I listen to them talk about choosing colleges to apply to because those colleges have good departments in this or that–whatever they think they want to major in, at this point in their young lives.  Often these kids want to become doctors–doesn’t everyone?–and I listen to them talk about the biology departments and the research opportunities that the colleges on their lists have.  And I wonder how many of them will still be pre-med by the time they are sophomores.  At the other extreme are the kids who believe they have a wide variety of academic interests and want to find colleges where they can pursue all of them.  One recent experience I had was with a student who talked with equal enthusiasm about chemistry, music, business, and one or two others I can’t even remember.  One of my most interesting students this year talked about majoring in Czech as a tribute to her grandfather’s heritage (by the way, she was already taking Czech courses outside of school at the local consulate); that is one of my favorite stories ever.

Rarely do I think their college major choices will stick (though I am secretly pulling for the Czech major).

Two articles I have read recently caused me to think about this topic from a couple of other perspectives, so let’s explore them.

1. Where Students Get Their Advice

Let me open with a premise from an article I read way back last September, an article which I have been saving for the perfect episode.  Writing in U.S. News & World Report, education reporter Lauren Camera opened with this:

When it comes to choosing college majors ? a crucial decision that lays the groundwork for future employment and earnings ? students often rely on the least reliable sources for advice: family and friends.

Work colleagues and employers are among the best sources of information for students seeking advice about choosing a major. But according to a new survey by Gallup and Strada Education Network, . . . they are the least utilized.

“This causes us to rethink the entire college advice mechanism,” Brandon Busteed, executive director of education and workforce development at Gallup, says. “There is a lot of pretty bad advice out there.”

When choosing a major field of study, the survey shows, students most commonly sought advice from “informal social networks.” In fact, more than half of adults, or 55 percent, with an associate degree, some college or a bachelor’s degree depended on their social network for advice about choosing a major, most frequently from friends and family.

The next most commonly consulted source of advice, which 44 percent of people reported considering, was college and high school counselors, as well as media-based information. The least consulted group, which 20 percent reported consulting, were work-based networks, including former employers and work colleagues. (quoted from the article)

None of this is surprising.  I think the data would be about the same if you asked people how they chose the colleges they applied to; most would say they relied on family and friends for advice–who, by the way, are equally unreliable as a source of appropriate colleges.

And, of course, how can high school seniors really consult with employers and work colleagues about the choice of a major when lots of them are not working at all and the rest are working part time, mostly in places they hope to get out of by going to college.  So, what does the report recommend?  Ms. Camera’s article says this:

The report recommends relying less on high school and college counselors, who are overworked and often responsible for an unrealistic number of students, and more on potential employers and faculty members.

“Taken together, the challenges facing the formal channels of student guidance suggest that retooling the traditional model of advising to fit the changing needs of students could bolster its effectiveness,” the report reads. (quoted from the article)

All of that is interesting, but I think it is more likely to work for students already in college than for high schoolers thinking about a future college major choice.  And, of course, the liberal arts enthusiast in me, which our regular listeners know from previous episodes, still wonders whether college does have to be all about getting a future career–though I have to admit that even I said to my student, “What would you ever do with that Czech major?”

Carol D’Amico, executive vice president of mission advancement and philanthropy at Strada Education Network, was quoted in the article as saying this:

 “We know your choice of major is not necessarily the choice of career, but it puts you on a pathway and commits you to a pathway. . . .  Most everyone who goes to higher education these days say they are going to launch a career. That’s a fact. So how do we become much more intentional about getting them to their desired career?” (quoted from the article)

I wish it weren’t so, but perhaps it.  I am certainly willing to put students on a pathway, but I am far less willing to commit students to a pathway.  I believe that most liberal arts majors give students a choice of many different pathways and that the student’s choice can change over time precisely because of that liberal arts background.  But that’s a different episode.

2. Changing College Majors

So, let’s move on to something that everyone always says to kids, but that I never saw any actual data about until recently?that is, how many kids change their majors once they are in college.  Last December, Doug Lederman wrote an article for Inside Higher Ed, which asked and answered the question posed in his headline:  “Who Changes Majors? (Not Who You Think).”  Here is the whole answer:

[A] brief report from the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics, drawn from the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study, finds that 33 percent of bachelor’s degree pursuers who entered college in 2011-12 and 28 percent of students in associate degree programs had changed their major at least once by 2014.

About one in 10 had changed majors twice. (quoted from the article)

Well, there you have it:  About one-third of college students change their majors, and that’s enough so that your kid shouldn’t feel uncomfortable about doing the same thing in the next year or two.  I am all for that, speaking as someone who changed her major in the first month of college (that shows you how well prepared I was, and I am quite sure that I never got any advice from anyone when choosing either my original major or my final major, perhaps more’s the pity).

For all the kids who think they want to be science majors, here are a few more statistics from Mr. Lederman’s article:

Students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs were likelier than those in non-STEM fields (35 versus 29 percent) to change majors.

And students who started out studying math were likeliest of all: 52 percent of those who initially declared as math majors ended up majoring in something else, followed by 40 percent of those in the natural sciences, 37 percent in education, 36 percent in humanities disciplines and 32 percent in engineering and general studies. . . .  (quoted from the article)

Truly, I am not sure that there is much practical significant difference  between 35 percent in STEM fields and 29 percent in non-STEM fields changing majors–or among 40 percent in natural sciences, 37 percent in education, 36 percent in humanities disciplines, and even 32 percent in engineering and general studies.  However, apart from relative comparisons of one major to another, it does seem like changes in majors by 52 percent of mathematics majors and 40 percent of natural science majors might be worth noting.  Mr. Lederman’s article gives a number of plausible explanations for the abandonment of mathematics, which you are welcome to go read.

3. Choosing a College Because of a Major

So, what’s the point?  It is simply that I want your kid to be very careful this spring when choosing a college to attend.  Where did your kid get his or her idea about what to major in?  Was it a well-informed choice?  Does the major have a future, either in a specific career field or in something that can serve as the underpinning for many career fields? Given the statistics, basing the choice of a college on a potential major (assuming your kid is lucky enough to have some good options available once the acceptances come in) might not be the best thinking.  In other words, choosing to attend one college over another largely because of a great biology department, when you think you are going to be pre-med, might not be the best decision.

I know we all have struggled with the college application questions that ask for a kid’s major–and sometimes even for a back-up major!  I know we have struggled with the college application essays about why that major is particularly interesting to the kid.  I have certainly helped lots of kids write lots of those essays.  Here is what I always said to them:  This essay is an exercise in presenting yourself in an appealing and persuasive way to this college.  You should not think of it as an irrevocable promise that you are going to pursue this major that you are writing about.

And so, help your kid understand that he or she might want to change that major, perhaps more than once, and that making such a change is okay with you and even okay with the college.

What are the exceptions, and there are always some?  Obviously, there are kids who have applied to a specialized school, like a music school in a larger university, or kids who have auditioned for and applied to a specific arts-related school or program, like dance or studio art.  These are kids who have devoted a lot of their young lives to their talent and, if they are accepted, are very likely going to choose a college because of that particular program.  That is perfectly reasonable.  But, as it turns out, even those kids can change their minds; and, if they do, being in a specialized school within a larger university might be useful if it comes time to reconsider their choices.

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Episode 10: What Are Some More of the Decisive Factors in Putting Colleges on Your List?

This week, we’re launching our series on choosing where your child should apply to college by examining some of the decisive factors, or deal breakers, in adding colleges to your list

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Whether extracurricular activities could really be a deal breaker
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This week, we’re continuing our series on choosing where your child should apply to college by examining more of the decisive factors, or deal breakers, in adding colleges to your list.

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Episode 10

As we said in our last episode, it is critical to understand what factors—if any—are the decisive ones for you and your teenager in choosing colleges to apply to. We characterized these factors as deal breakers—that is, a factor so important that it would cause you to rule out whole categories of colleges because of it. In our last episode, we talked about four such factors: (1) colleges away from home or at home; (2) two-year or four-year colleges; (3) public or private colleges; and (4) large or small colleges. In this episode, we are offering five more deal breakers to consider.

1. Selective or Not Selective Colleges?

This is the factor that most guidance counselors bring up first: selectivity. You have probably heard people say that a student should apply to a “safety” school that he or she is sure to be admitted to; a couple of “reach” schools that would be great, but might be beyond or just beyond what the student’s high school record warrants; and then some others in the middle that the student has a reasonable chance of being admitted to, but not guaranteed. That is common sense.

As for a safety school, keep in mind that some public community colleges and some public four-year colleges can serve as safety schools for some students. We will talk more about that for students in New York City and New York State in the final episode of this series, which will focus on the public City University of New York (CUNY) and the public State University of New York (SUNY).

As for “reach” schools, keep in mind, that applying to colleges is time consuming and expensive (unless you have application-fee waivers from the colleges, which are sometimes based on family income and sometimes based on the student’s academic achievements). Applying to “reach” schools that are significantly more selective than a student’s high school grades and SAT or ACT scores would warrant might just be a waste of time. Should you rule out applying to the most selective schools, given the chances that being admitted are slim, even for the best students? Is selectivity a deal breaker for you and your teenager?

2. Urban, Suburban, or Rural Colleges?

Is the community setting a decisive factor for you or your teenager? Obviously, there are advantages and disadvantages to urban, suburban, and rural settings, most of which are common sense.

For example, some students like the idea of going to a college in a city because of the general excitement that cities offer, the many cultural opportunities that are available, the diversity of the people and the likely diversity of the college students, and the ease of getting around by public transportation (in some cities more than others). Some parents hate the idea of sending their teenager to college in a city because of safety issues, too many distractions from studying, and the likelihood that city living will be expensive.

On the other hand, for example, some students and parents like the idea of a rural campus, perhaps in or near a small town somewhere, where students are safe on and off campus, the environment is unspoiled, the campus itself is idyllic, there are fewer distractions from studying, and living costs are relatively low.

Some students are dying to get away from the type of community they grew up in, and others cannot imagine fitting in or being comfortable in a new physical and social environment. So, is the type of community setting a deal breaker for you or your teenager?

3. Colleges with Certain Majors or Certain Activities?

In our first series, Understanding the World of College, we discussed colleges that are known for their academic specialties, like music or art or engineering or business. Some specialized colleges teach only that subject—like Berklee College of Music. Others have strong specialized schools or colleges within a larger university—like the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University. Others have strong departments in certain fields—like the Department of Theatre at Northwestern University or the modern languages departments at Middlebury College.

If your teenager has a particular field of study in mind, then you will need to find a college that offers or specializes in that major. Some majors are easy to find and are offered by most (though not all) colleges—like English and mathematics and history. Others are harder to find, especially technical majors—like architecture and engineering and computer science. Although many students will change their minds about a major after a month or a year or even two years in college, those going into college with a clear idea of what they want to study will probably need to make the availability of that major a deal breaker in putting colleges on their list.

Sometimes an extracurricular activity is just as important to a teenager—and even to a parent—as the academic part of college. Sports teams are probably the prime example. Your family might be looking for—rather, insisting on—a college with a competitive football, swimming, track, basketball, lacrosse, or crew program and so on. Sports teams could be a deal breaker for both boys and girls, of course. We would like to imagine that other activities would have the same appeal—for example, a great school newspaper, like The Cornell Daily Sun, for a long time Ithaca’s only morning newspaper; or a great glee club, like Yale University’s; or a great drama group, like the University of Pennsylvania’s Mask and Wig Club. But sports teams are probably it.

One more thing to say about sports: If your teenager has not been playing on high-powered high school teams or competitive community teams and has not been in serious talks with college recruiters before you start making your college list, he or she is not going to get a big sports scholarship. Some students harbor the dream that a sports scholarship is the way they will get to college and that professional sports is the way they will make a living after that. If you have a teenager with this mindset, make sure you get a real appraisal of his or her athletic ability from a reliable high school coach or administrator as soon as possible.

4. Colleges with a Special Focus?

Another topic we discussed in our first series was the many colleges that have a special focus—that is, single-sex colleges, faith-based colleges, colleges for students with special needs (like learning disabilities or hearing impairment), colleges with online courses or whole online degrees, the military service academies, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs), and so on. Any of these options could become a decisive factor in choosing colleges.

For example, your daughter might have her heart set on going to a women’s college. She might be drawn to the long-standing traditions or the leadership opportunities for young women or the social environment or even the famous alumni who attended women’s colleges. If you agree, then only women’s colleges would be on your daughter’s list. Or, your child might have his or her heart set on going to an HBCU, interestingly for all the same reasons we just cited for going to a women’s college—namely, the long-standing traditions or the leadership opportunities for young people or the social environment or even the famous alumni who attended. If you agree, then only HBCUs would be on your teenager’s list.

Clearly, choosing to apply only to colleges with a special focus will limit the number of options your family has to consider. To be sure, some of these choices are more limiting than others. For example, there are more than a thousand faith-based colleges to choose from, but only five military service academies.

5. Colleges with a Special Relationship to the Student’s Family or High School?

This can be a remarkably influential factor for students and for their families in making a college decision. Let’s start with the obvious: You work at a college and, even better, get free or reduced tuition for any of your children who enroll. This factor is tough to discount, especially if money is an issue. Putting money aside, parents likely feel comfortable with and/or proud of the college they work for, and students themselves might feel comfortable going there because they are already familiar with it. Even so, that might not be a strong enough reason to limit your teenager’s college list to just that one institution.

Another remarkably influential personal factor is where family members went to college. Many children attend—or want to attend—the alma mater of their parents or grandparents. We see even first-generation college students strongly considering the college attended by an older sibling. Family college connections can mean a lot—just like any other family traditions. Even so, again, that might not be a strong enough reason to limit your teenager’s college list to just those institutions attended by a family member.

Another personal factor that comes up more than you might think is having family members or close friends living where a college is located. Certainly, a parent who is reluctant to send a child to a college far away from home might be less anxious if a family member or close friend lived there—just in case of an emergency. For a student, too, having some family members or family friends nearby might ease the homesickness that comes with most students’ first days on campus.

The final factor in this category is not personal to the family, but rather is about the student’s high school. Some high schools have a relationship already built with a college, usually a nearby college. A noteworthy example of this is the growing number of Early College high schools, which have a carefully worked out agreement with a partner college typically to provide college credit courses to students while they are still in high school and frequently to admit those students into the college almost automatically, thus allowing a seamless transition from high school to college.

Other high schools have less elaborate arrangements with one or more colleges whereby students can take college courses for credit while in high school, banking those credits to transfer later to whatever college they attend; of course, it is even easier for those students to continue at the college where they have already earned those credits. Any of these arrangements between high schools and colleges can give students a streamlined pathway into that college, thus saving the time and effort and money expended in the typical application process. If your high school has such an arrangement with a college and if your teenager has taken advantage of it, it would be very hard to walk away from choosing that college as your only option—even if it just for the first year or two.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • Why urban kids might want to go to college in urban settings
  • Whether extracurricular activities could really be a deal breaker
  • Why high school/college partnerships are so advantageous

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