Fighting Foreclosure

When I advised pre-health undergraduates, my office regularly warned students about the problem of “foreclosure.” For you readers with mortgages: no, not that kind. Advisors are not normally in the business of repossessing property when mortgagors got behind on their payments! Rather, because pre-health students are particularly driven and focused, often from an early age, they do not dedicate mature time and energy to exploring other possibilities. They are in a sense “foreclosed” regarding other vocational options because they are committed to one—the field of medicine, for instance.

This issue is prominent enough that advisors designate the problematic group as a type: “foreclosure students.” In a 2011 article often cited by student advisors, Shaffer and Zalewski posit that such students “have prematurely committed themselves to academic majors and future careers, but present themselves to academic advisors as very decided.” They are “confident and committed” to their future plans.

Why might one avoid foreclosure? Is there something wrong with being lucky enough to have an early sense of what you want to do with your life? How can advisors and mentors help this particular constituency of students?

Shaffer and Zalewski relay that, in psychology, the phenomenon of foreclosure was first identified by Erik Erikson in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He cited it as an “undesirable” and “unsuccessful approach” used by adolescents to address their identity formation problems. In the next decade, using a population of 86 college males, James Marcia identified foreclosure as one of four modes in an identity development matrix: 

(1) diffusion (low exploration, low commitment), (2) foreclosure (low exploration, high commitment), (3) moratorium (high exploration, low commitment), and (4) achievement (high exploration, high commitment). 

James Marcia, as cited by Kyle Ross in “Applying Career and Identity Development Theories in Advising.”  

Marcia’s study, updated in other articles and in a handbook on “ego identity,” has been utilized by psychologists working on adolescent development and counselors who work in career advising.

Beyond the psychological hazards identified by Shaffer, Zalewski, Erikson, and Macia—namely the lack of exploration—I believe there are other risks to consider.

As a student, one must always consider the education and training needed to get to an end, wherever it is. Despite deliberations involved in selecting a college, one’s ultimate institutional landing spot may not offer the proper major or technical training required to precisely fit where a student hopes to go. (Students choose colleges for a variety of reasons, not the least of which may involve money or geography—or a significant other.) Even in a desired major, classwork may be too tough, or seem too easy. Or maybe the university or college offers the major and has the coursework, but students find the department’s or school’s culture to be a bad fit. A few bad professors in a major can ruin even one’s longest held plans. Comfort in the daily work of a major can make or break vocational dreams.

After earning a degree that corresponds with one’s inner spiritual and intellectual energies, and after finding a position in an organization that seems right, a student cannot anticipate what kind of vocational community, on the ground, will be best for them. Finding a vocation is as much about locating a home in a community as it is with inner drive and comfort. We can live in numerous situations that might appear, from a distance, to be deficient in terms of money, geography, or title if we enjoy or love the people in that situation. A community fit depends on many things, such as similar interests, corresponding identities, dialogue, mutual service, and exchange.

The day-to-day tasks of a job can also grind one down. You can know abstractly what comprises the actions in a vocational area, but the felt, lived experience can only be obtained on site. Perhaps the daily actions require too little, or too much, interaction with others. Or maybe the balance is off—too much exchange with those who rub one the wrong way, and too little with those one finds pleasing. There may be more desk work than expected, or too much in the field. Vocations are, in the end, a kind of sum of one’s daily work. The feel of that regular work dictates the glow of one’s inner fire.

Students with a strong vocational drive may also feel their ideals grow and morph over time. Their sensibilities about equality or justice, for instance, may evolve after college if social, cultural, and political circumstances demand a different kind of daily work, or activism, than previously imagined. Foreclosure, however, can hamper the possibilities for change. Being open to vocational adjustments also demands a flexibility not currently valued by admissions committees, and perhaps even by some mentors or faculty advisors. Sometimes a college-wide mentor, not attached to a particular department, is needed to foster in students a breadth of vision that regular faculty members, courtesy of their disciplinary training and socialization, do not usually possess.

The only way, in my view, for a student to give themselves the possibility for a best fit is to find the golden mean between aiming for a vocational goal while also cultivating flexibility. You can do this by choosing a flexible major (i.e., in the liberal arts or humanities) or actively remembering that you can do other work with a science, business, or engineering degree. Many also use graduate studies to create the needed credential flexibility to land in a vocation. 

The main prescription for a student diagnosed with foreclosure is, simply, to explore. The downside of exploration for the sake of it is what Marcia described as “moratorium”—meaning high exploration and low commitment. But even that stage of moratorium has advantages over foreclosure and diffusion. The deep exploration of other courses, fields, and potential endpoints can also confirm one’s present, long-held commitment. Change of commitment is not a necessary outcome of sampling possibilities. Mature exploration may result in a renewed and deepened appreciation for the virtues of one’s lifelong dream. And learning an arena’s comparative vices is never a negative. The student will then know their vocation, “warts and all.” 

There is, then, no reason whatsoever for a student to fear, for instance, general education courses or delayed major declarations. They can test the waters early in their academic careers, and over the summers between. If a switch is made, then it was meant to be. The student’s “fervent” dream was potentially just a shallow identity phase. Exploration, however, has positive outcomes in all scenarios. Because of this, all mentors and vocational directors ought to battle against foreclosure. We must identify and correct the vices of the “very decideds.”


Tim Lacy is a student services professional and historian. He currently works for the University of Illinois as the Director of the Office of Medical Student Learning Environment, and teaches history courses at Loyola University Chicago. He has worked in student services for most of his career, assisting students with their academic, personal, and career aspirations, including when plans go awry. He is the author of The Dream of a Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and the Great Books Idea (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), as well as several contributions to edited collections and academic journals. 

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