The Developmental Disconnect in Choosing a Major: Why Institutions Should Prohibit Choice until Second Year

Liz Freedman, Butler University

Introduction

E. St. John said, “There is, perhaps, no college decision that is more thought-provoking, gut wrenching and rest-of-your-life oriented—or disoriented—than the choice of a major” (St. John, 2000, p. 22). This idea exemplifies the fact that choosing a major is a choice that should be intentional and based on knowledge of one’s self, and when the wrong choice is made, the implications can be harsh. Ideally, a major will leave a student academically successful, as well as fulfill academic, personal, and vocational goals. College and university administrators have begun implementing various types of institutional resources to assist undecided students when choosing a major, but all students are likely underprepared when choosing a major. Therefore, due to the potential positive or negative impact the choice of major can have on the student experience, it is imperative for institutions to delay major choice until the second year, when students are more developmentally ready and educationally prepared to make an effective choice.

Facts and figures

An estimated 20 to 50 percent of students enter college as “undecided” (Gordon, 1995) and an estimated 75 percent of students change their major at least once before graduation (Gordon, 1995). When looking at the statistics, it is obvious that choosing a major has serious implications for the majority of students, not just undecided ones. It is also important to note that “decided” students are not necessarily basing their decision of major on factual research and self-reflection. According to a College Student Journal survey of more than 800 students who were asked to elaborate on their career decision-making process, factors that played a role included a general interest the student had in the subject he or she chose; family and peer influence; and assumptions about introductory courses, potential job characteristics, and characteristics of the major (Beggs, Bantham, & Taylor, 2008, p. 382). While these may be valid factors to a degree, the study ultimately implied that students are choosing a major based on influence and assumption rather than through an understanding of their own personal goals and values. Lastly, the choice of major can have a significant positive or negative effect on the student experience, affecting retention, engagement, student learning, academic standing, setting of academic and career goals, and more. For example, in a 2006 Canadian study, researchers followed 80,574 students in eighty-seven colleges during a five-year period and showed that good grades are related to having a major close to one’s personality. Most impressively, they found that congruence predicted overall grade-point average (GPA) after five years better than ACT scores (Jones, 2012).

The development of traditional first-year students

In contrast with the evidence that first-year students are most likely making uninformed choices when determining a major, the common four-year curriculum path colleges and universities use assumes that students enter college prepared to make a decision regarding major and, ultimately, career path. Unfortunately, the reality is that students are most likely not developmentally prepared to do so. According to Perry’s student development stages, students in their first year will experience dualism, in which the world around them is made up of dichotomies (good vs. bad, right vs. wrong, yes vs. no, etc.). Students in this stage believe there is one right answer for everything, including the choice of major (Evans, Forney, Guido, Patton, & Renn, 2010). Dualistic students believe there is one “right” major for them, and they tend to look to others for the answer (adviser, parents, peers, and faculty) rather than draw conclusions based on their own research, personal goals, and self-reflection. First-year students are still attempting to understand their own identity and, having lived a majority of their lives under someone else’s guidance, they may not yet be able to come to legitimate conclusions about themselves. This raises the question, without knowing one’s self, how can one effectively choose a major?

Since they are in the dualistic stage of development, first-year students also need assistance navigating a decision-making process. According to Tiedeman’s approach to decision making, these students will begin college in the exploration stage, considering random, exploratory options (as cited in Harren, 1976). Little to no progress is made toward a choice, because knowledge of one’s self and the professional world are needed but not yet understood, and students may feel anxiety about making life choices. Since incoming students are both dualistic and in the exploratory process of decision making, they may not yet be developmentally ready to make important life decisions without a structured period of self-reflection, learning, and growth. When making decisions independently or based on the opinions of those with whom they have a personal relationship, such as family members, students will most likely make an uneducated, unrelated, and ineffective decision not based on their true personal goals, interests, and values.

The disconnect

Most students will not be developmentally ready to make effective decisions based on identity and self-reflection, such as choosing a major. If we look again at Perry’s stages of development, the earliest point at which students may be able to effectively choose a major is not until the stage of multiplicity (Evans et al., 2010). Multiplicity signifies the ability to recognize that various options exist when one right answer is not known. In this stage the student may be ready to narrow their major preferences, but it may not be until even further in development (the relativism stage) that students can truly begin deciding based on what they know about themselves. Furthermore, Tiedeman’s decision-making process argues that after the exploratory phase is the crystallization period (as cited in Harren, 1976). Here the student can begin making progress toward a decision but does not actually make one. For example, the student can effectively begin weighing the advantages and disadvantages of a particular decision, consider other alternatives, and understand some of the consequences of these alternatives. Clearly, there is a serious disconnect between where traditional freshmen students are developmentally and the level of development needed to make a successful choice in major. If choosing a major actually means choosing one’s goals, values, and interests based on intentional self-reflection and understanding of one’s self, then first-year students simply are not ready.

Solutions

Fortunately, it is not all bad news; there are practical solutions to address this inherent disconnect, including implementing first-year programs, summer programs, career assessments, and exploratory workshops. Moreover, using positive advising techniques and encouraging changes in campus culture would be effective. Specifically, these enhancements include the use of appreciative advising, which is asking positive, open-ended questions when helping students consider goals, passions, and interests—all of which are vital aspects of major choice (Bloom, 2008). Additionally, changing the terminology we use about pre-major students from “undecided” to “exploratory” students or something similar would ensure a more positive connotation rather than one that implies indecisiveness.

While these are all realistic options for colleges and universities to implement, they are only short-term solutions and often do not assist decided students who are most likely not developmentally ready or are unprepared to effectively make this decision as well. Therefore, truly assisting students make well-informed life choices will require systemic changes in institutional structures and processes. Ultimately, prohibiting major choice until the sophomore year is the most responsible option. To do this, there would need to be a structured course or program during the first year, and a total intake academic advising model should be incorporated in which students in their first year receive advising from an objective, central advising office and it is not until the second year that students will be advised within a specific academic discipline, such as with a faculty adviser (King, 2008). A structure such as this may offer first-year students career assessments, personal research opportunities in areas of study, job shadow experiences, informational interviewing guidance, personal reflections writing, upper-level classes observations, and  faculty interviewing. In the case of Waynesburg University, first-year students can delay the declaration of a major through the Major Decision Program; part of this process includes a Career and Life Planning course, as well as Discover, a computer program that allows students to learn more about possible majors, career paths, and their personal preferences (Waynesburg University, n.d.).

Conclusions

There are many challenges to implementing a system in which students delay major choice until the sophomore year. Funding would be needed to change advising structures, including updated physical environments for institutions in which a total intake advising model is not currently utilized. Furthermore, it takes time and effort to make even the slightest change in campus culture. This is partially due to the fact that administration, faculty, staff, and every department on campus would have to be willing to adapt to an institutional change. Lastly, there is a small possibility that these changes would not apply to all students, who may be developmentally prepared to make the decision before entering college. Although there are few students statistically in this category, those who do may perceive the first year as a misuse of time.

Despite these challenges, school administrators must decide where the priorities are. As shown by the statistics previously mentioned, the current timing of choosing a major negatively affects a majority of students. It would be difficult to implement such great institutional changes, but not doing so might constitute a disservice to the student body. Furthermore, a structured freshman year that focuses on student exploration and deliberation will provide the student with tools and skills useful for long-term application, including the inevitable job search and other higher-level personal decisions. Therefore, even those students who are developmentally ready to choose a major before or in the first year of school will still benefit from undergoing a structured period of self-reflection. Ultimately, a student who makes a more informed major decision in his or her second year of school based on personal goals and values will be more engaged in the college experience and more successful academically, personally, and professionally.

References

Beggs, J., Bantham, J., & Taylor, S. (2008). Distinguishing the factors influencing college students’ choice of major. College Student Journal, 42(2), 381–394.

Bloom, J. (2008). Moving on from college. In V. Gordon, W. Habley, T. Grites, & &. Associates (Eds.), Academic advising: A comprehensive handbook (pp. 179, 181). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Evans, N., Forney, D., Guido, F., Patton, L., & Renn, K. (2010). Perry’s theory of intellectual and ethical development. Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice (2nd ed.) (pp. 82–98). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Evans, N., Forney, D., Guido, F., Patton, L., & Renn, K. (2010). Psychosocial identity development. Student development in college: Theory, research and practice (2nd ed.) (pp. 52–54). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Gordon, V. N. (1995). The undecided college student: An academic and career advising challenge (2nd. ed.). Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Harren, V. A. (1976, April). Tiedeman’s approach to career development. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association Convention, San Francisco, CA.

Jones, L. K., Jones, J. W. (2012). Personality-College Major Match and Student Success: A Guide for Professionals Helping Youth and Adults Who Are in College or Are College-Bound. Retrieved from http://www.careerkey.org/pdf/Personality-College_Major_Match_Guide_Professionals.pdf

King, M. (2008). Organization of academic advising services. In V. Gordon, W. Habley, T. Grites, & &. Associates (Eds.), Academic advising: A comprehensive handbook (pp. 246–247). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

St. John, E. (2000, April 13). Majors. Black Issues In Higher Education. pp. 21–27.

Waynesburg University. (n.d.). Counseling Center. Academic Counseling. Retrieved from http://www.waynesburg.edu/web/counselingcenter/services#Career_Counseling

About the Author(s)

Liz Freedman, Butler University

Liz Freedman is the student employment coordinator for Internship and Career Services at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. She can be reached at lfreedma@butler.edu.

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  1. user gravatar
    Robert Norman

    Wow! What a great and insightful article! I think that the idea of prohibiting the choice of one’s major until the second year to be a very interesting idea. I can definitely see, from this article, how it could be beneficial to a student’s development, while also difficult to implement in an institution.

    One of the biggest issues with the implementation, in and of itself is that, “it takes time and effort to make even the slightest change in campus culture.” Everything that happens in an institution will receive criticism and protest from those in opposition, even when it is something to help or benefit a large number of people and have minimal negative consequences for others. Implementing something like this would completely transform the academic realm in a participating institution. It would take at least four full years of this type of change in order to become an accepted part of the institution.

    I can see this being, however useful to many students and academic departments, harmful to majors, departments, and fields that are incredibly intensive and require full use of those four years of undergraduate learning. Not all departments would be able to participate in this, or if they did, would require a major reworking of their academic framework and required courses. A project like this would be huge and I personally, don’t see any easy way around this issue. However, for majors that don’t have as many requirements, I can see this being very helpful. One way this could be done is by having “General Education” classes taken during the first year of college be intro classes to umbrellas of similar majors or majors with similarities. These classes could have guest lecturers from the different majors and departments that fall under them. This could familiarize students with the departments on campus and help them make a more informed decision about their major of study.

    As an undergraduate student, I have changed my major multiple times and have wished I knew more about these majors before switching into them, so I could make more informed decisions and switch my major less. If I were an incoming student, a system the one proposed in this article would have been very helpful!

  2. user gravatar
    Kayla Zuckerman

    As a UMASS Peer Advisor and New Student Orientation Leader I have encountered many first-year students unsure about majors and what they want to do. While we call “undecided” students “undeclared” similar to the “exploratory” title mentioned, many undeclared students at summer orientation showed a little bit of embarrassment when telling other declared students they were undedeclared. They would often say something like “oh I’m just undeclared” tentatively as if it was some terrible thing. Even students who did have majors chosen seemed to be unsure about their decisions often saying they already wanted to switch majors or they are only that major because their parents say it will get them a good job. Most students switch majors once if not many more times. I myself came in declared but switched my major my second year after much self-discovery and contemplation about what I wanted and what inspired me.
    While I think not letting first years pick majors could be beneficial, many students don’t even really know themselves and aren’t prepared to truly make a decision about majors by even their fourth year. We can’t push back decision making forever. Also, even if they do know themselves and what they want, they often ignore it. The problem really is in most people choosing majors based on what they “should do” not what they actually are interested in and actually want. Many students have told me “I really wanted to be such and such major but everyone said I wouldn’t get a job with that and it was a waste of time and money”. The problem with choosing a major too quickly and when uninformed is only one aspect of the problems with decisions in choosing a major, but it is much deeper than that alone.

    • user gravatar
      Jessica d'Entremont

      Entering my freshman year at Umass, I chose to be part of a Social Justice RAP. I was undeclared and had no idea what I wanted to study. I figured that being in a social justice RAP would allow me to take classes that interest me and discover potential majors. I had always been told to pick “practical” majors that would ensure that I would have a job and could make a living once I graduated from college. I would research high paying jobs that would ensure a job. When I discovered an interest in Philosophy and Political Science, I was extremely apprehensive. People would often question my choice in majors asking, “what do you do with a philosophy degree?” My experience so far in college has taught me the importance of pursuing your passions and interests. The major you choose in college does not determine the rest of your life. I have learned a lot about myself and the goals that I wish to pursue.
      Based on my experience, I think that it is completely unreasonable to expect students to figure out a major as a freshman in college. The courses I took as a freshman in college were never even discussed in high school. I didn’t know anything about Philosophy or Political Science as I was taking standard courses such as History and English in high school. It takes time to mature and learn about one’s interests and goals. Instead of feeling pressured to choose a major right from the start, it should be made known to students that being undecided is perfectly normal, and even encouraged. I think students should be encouraged to explore their interests and engage in a variety of different courses. Advisers, teachers, counselors, etc. should put less emphasis on choosing a single major and more on pursuing various interests. In this way, students will be sure to choose a major that they are passionate about.

  3. user gravatar
    Katie Wagner

    I think it is essential to have a deep understanding of yourself and your personality, and in concurrence with the article I believe that this is unlikely to happen before entering college and even into your college experience. I entered college a declared Anthropology major but in retrospect, I essentially just got lucky in picking a major I am interested in and can adjust to apply to many career paths. I remember in high school thinking about declaring innumerable majors and I finally came to find Anthropology was the fit for me – only after my advisor sat with me once a week for some time, talking about my future goals and even taking a few personality tests. The assistance and advice I received from my high school guidance counselor made all the difference in deciding on a major, and eventually I even took an introductory Anthropology class to test the waters and see if it was a suitable decision. As this article also states, I believe these methods are exactly what should be promoted for the constantly evolving first-year students in colleges everywhere.
    I continue to be an Anthropology major, into my junior year, but I have also made changes in choosing a major, despite the tremendous efforts of my high school guidance counselor and I. I am now a double major in Anthropology and Legal Studies. I unintentionally entered my first semester at college taking almost entirely General Education classes because they were the only ones available that I found interesting and would also count towards requirements. This turned out to be beneficial to my college experience because I found a greater interest in areas where I had only been curious about previously. In particular I took a class called “Controversies in Public Policy” to cover a Gen Ed and found a new passion for public policy that I still carry today. At the end of my Fall semester of my first year, I had been opened up to a large variety of new interests I wanted to pursue that I had never known about before college. Even into my third year at college I continue to take classes that open my eyes to new and captivating departments, like a current Herbalism class, that I could see myself enjoying immensely and making a living with. I never would have imagined myself a double major in Anthropology and Legal Studies – especially if you asked my high school self or even my early first year self. This shows that it is necessary to have time to explore and be open to new knowledge, and to have the advising support systems necessary in order to make a lasting, informed and satisfying decision on a major (or two!).

  4. user gravatar
    Alexandra May

    I think a big part of being a first year student is finding yourself; this being said, most student do come into college undecided and clearly if they are trying to find themselves they are not sure exactly what major would be perfect for them for the rest of their lives. My freshman year I actually lived on an “undecided” floor. Although I came into college knowing what I wanted to study I enjoyed living with all the other girls on the floor who didn’t know what they wanted to study or what they wanted to do with the rest of their lives. They all had to take a class call OASIS that really tries to get them to settle down and figure out what they were interested in. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing their homework assignments, or talking them through questions that they may be deciding between which for me actually solidified that I was in the correct major for myself, Legal Studies. I think it was very important for most of the girls I lived with to feel that they weren’t the only ones going through the decision making process, they had their teachers, and advisers that they were required to meet with as well as the other girls on the floor all of whom were struggling to figure out the daunting question of: what to do with the rest of my life?
    Although I came to UMass a declared Legal Studies major, UMass actually doesn’t allow first year student to take any legal studies classes at all until they are a second year. This made a big different for me I think because my first year 1) I was looking forward to taking the legal studies classes which solidified that I was in the correct major, but 2) it forced me into taking Gen Ed classes which opened my eyes and actually led me into my second major and minor and certificate choices that I have chosen. Since I was a kid I have always wanted to be a police officer so Legal Studies always seemed like the correct path for me, but without the restriction put on me by UMass, forcing me to take Gen Ed classes I never would have picked up my second major in psychology, my minor in sociology, and my criminal justice certificate. I definitely think that forcing student to either take all Gen Ed classes their first year, or requiring them to take something equivalent to an OASIS class and require them to meet with advisers, teachers, mentors, etc. could only benefit the student and open their eyes into things that they may never have thought that they would be interested in. “A student who makes a more informed major decision in his or her second year of school based on personal goals and values will be more engaged in the college experience and more successful academically, personally, and professionally.”

 



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