Help for Undecided Students

I “meandered” through several majors during my college years. Such exploration was encouraged, understood as an important part of the liberal arts commitment to “breadth” and the messy and slow process of “figuring it out.” By the time the deadline for declaring a major arrived, I had completed most of the required courses for the philosophy major, taken here and there as electives. I called home and left a message on my parent’s answering machine (this was in the late 80s), notifying them of my intention to declare a major in philosophy, Beyond having to endure my father’s jokes (Q: “What did the philosophy major say to the engineering major? A: “Do you want fries with that?”), they supported me in both the meandering and the final decision.

Thinking about this now from the perspective of college personnel, I can see why such meandering might be considered a problem, for the student as well as for the institution. A recent article in the Chronicle describes one strategy that some large universities are taking to circumvent these problems: the development of the “meta-major,” requiring students in their first year (and in some cases before they arrive on campus) to commit to a general area. Such interventions appear to be necessary, given the scale of the institutions. In one example cited in the article, the ratio of advisors to undeclared students is 1:275! Readers will not be surprised to hear that the “meta-major” is part of a larger strategy to improve retention and completion, and the article mentions other measures.

Several rationales for this approach are suggested. Narrowing down the choices through “meta-majors” alleviates the paralysis that can set in through too many choices, what Barry Schwartz calls “the paradox of choice.” Bill Cavanaugh explored this tendency in relation to vocation in At This Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education in an essay with the provocative title, “Actually, You Can’t Be Anything You Want (And It’s a Good Thing, Too).” {For a snippet of Bill’s argument, see his post, “Vocation and Freedom in a ‘Free Market’ Economy.” Daniel Meyers explored what it means to make hard choices in his piece subtitled “Deciding Not Deferring”}.

Letting students flounder in their academic planning can lead to disaster, one expert argues, underscoring a particular concern for first-generation college students. The organization Complete College America, which aims to close the gaps in achievement, has advocated for this type of approach for several years, according to the author. Readers of this blog may be interested in their recent report, entitled On Purpose, which makes the case for meta-majors and other initiatives. You can access the full report here.

The article concludes by sharing the success story of a young woman named Caprice Kennedy, who switched schools more than once but remained driven in her desire to study dance. With the help of an attentive advisor, Caprice ultimately majored in cognitive science and spent this summer teaching dance at a camp in New York. Her advisor, Sanchez Swain, trained in helping undecided students land on a major, offers the following astute observation: “It’s very delicate to know where students are in their emotional journey toward those big dreams.”

Whether it’s a wide array of program choices or a more narrow selection of “meta-majors,” the role of the advisor-mentor continues to be paramount in the unfolding process of discernment, decision, and direction.

{For more on undecided students, see Florence Amamoto’s recent piece, “Stories for the Undecided.”}

Hannah Schell was a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Monmouth College in Illinois from 2001-2018. She is the author of “Commitment and Community: The Virtue of Loyalty and Vocational Discernment” in At this Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (Oxford University Press, 2015). Currently the Online Community Coordinator, she is also a campus consultant for NetVUE. 

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