How do I go about choosing a college major? My son doesn’t know what he wants to major in at college. Can he still find a good college? These are typical questions that I hear on a regular basis. And my answer is always the same. For most students applying to college, you do not need to worry about what your major will be once you get to college.
Why is that? Part of the issue is that college exposes students to many areas of education that they had no experience in at their high school. If you don’t know what anthropology is, you aren’t going to say that is your major. Students are also changing and maturing during this time and interests change. Most students change their major once they are in college a number of times. I have heard that the average student considers 6 majors before deciding what they will finally major in. I don’t think that is bad because a large part of college should be self exploration and the exploration of education topics you know nothing about.
Don’t get me wrong. I have little sympathy for students who spend 4 years taking a totally random array of courses and then find themselves without a major because they don’t have more than 2 classes in any area. But spending the first year or two exploring options, and finding out what you are truly passionate about makes sense to me. Once you have decided where your interests are, then declare your major and go about focusing your efforts.
The exception to this approach is for those majors that require focused study throughout college. For example, most engineering majors start working on the major as soon as they start freshman year. For students with this type of major, examining who they are and whether they truly want to major in that field must come in the high school years.
My friend, Tom Bottorf, over at GetCollegeFunding, disagrees with this approach in a recent article entitled “Undeclared major can be costly.” Tom’s argument is that a student should enter college knowing what their major will be citing statistics about students without early declared majors often transferring or dropping out of college. It is true that a student might find that their first college does not have the field they are interested in and have to transfer although in my experience this actually does not occur very often if the student did a proper self examination of who they are before choosing a college. Look at the graduation rates of top liberal arts colleges like Swarthmore and Carleton each of which has a 93% graduation rate. As small liberal arts colleges they have limited options for majors yet very few students transfer or fail to graduate.
It is the unfortunate truth that whether students have an early declared major or not, on a national basis there are a huge number of students who transfer or drop out. Investigating the rate of transfer and the graduation rate of colleges a student is considering might help lessen that number. If you know that most students are not satisfied after their first year and transfer out, or that few students graduate, you should have concerns about whether that college is a good choice for your needs.
The issue, in my opinion, is not whether the student has declared a major or not. The issue is whether the student took the necessary actions before choosing a college to make sure that their college choice was the best choice for their needs. If the student takes the time to consider their needs, they are more likely to graduate and stay at their first choice college. That is why planning for college is such a critical action.