Undergrads Face Major Decisions

Tracey Wong Briggs

November, 16, 2003

General studies can pay off over highly specific curricula

Kristin McQuillan primarily chose the University of the Pacific for a pilot program in which she could earn both a pharmacy degree and a master’s of business administration in six years.

But in her first semester last year on the Stockton, Calif., campus, she found herself far more enthusiastic about her economics and public speaking courses than biology. “Biology at UOP is a very difficult program. In order to excel, you really have to care about it,” she says. Spending several years memorizing massive amounts of microbiology information held no appeal at all.

“They teach it for a reason, but I couldn’t get myself to focus on something I didn’t enjoy that much,” says McQuillan, 19, of Fresno. So she changed majors to math and economics, abandoning the program that prompted her to choose the school to begin with.

Colleges across the country offer a panoply of specialized undergraduate majors and programs, from biomedical engineering to criminology.

But before students limit their college searches based on highly specialized majors and concentrated studies, they should keep in mind that chances are good they will change their minds and change their majors.

In a national sample of students followed from the eighth grade in 1988 through 2000, U.S. Department of Education senior research analyst Clifford Adelman found that 37% of students who earned bachelor’s degrees changed majors at least once.

While a few teens are absolutely certain about their career goals, the average kid is not, says Bev Taylor, an independent college counselor in Roslyn Heights, N.Y. “How certain can they be at 17?” she asks. “Your major should be what you’re passionate about, and the only way to find out what you’re passionate about is to go to college.”

The proliferation of highly specialized majors and undergraduate programs has been going on for some time, says Bill Rubin, an educational consultant in Costa Mesa, Calif. Specialized programs may reflect the academic interests of a school’s faculty researchers or its community needs, while other times it may be a marketing gimmick, he says.

For students who see college as the ticket to getting the tools needed to do a job or for those wanting to go into fields such as nursing, specialized training may be what they need.

But in many fields, a specialized undergraduate major such as computer engineering or biotechnology may not give a student a leg up in getting a job or getting into graduate school. Majors are often far less important than how students perform academically, receive internships and other experiences.

“It’s not intuitive that you could study math and go into business, but . . . it happens more often than people would expect,” Rubin says.

Of the eight Ivy League colleges, only Penn State offers an undergraduate business major, yet no one would deny that the Ivies turn out students who get MBA degrees and are successful in business, Rubin adds.

For the student who has a career in mind, a good idea is to seek advice of professionals in the chosen field, says Jody Glassman, senior assistant admissions director at the University of South Florida. “Sit down for lunch or a soda, and ask them questions,” such as what they majored in and what professional societies they belong to.

She also recommends the Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook (www.bls.gov/oco/home.htm), which features a search engine with different types of jobs, nature of the work, working conditions, employment outlook, and training and qualifications.

With two CSI shows in prime time and the FBI in the news, many students are interested in forensic science and criminology, she says. But forensic science typically requires an advanced degree, so a bachelor’s degree in chemistry would be an appropriate major.

“The FBI recruits on our campus, and they don’t necessarily want criminology majors. They want accounting and foreign language majors.”

In any case, the nature of undergraduate education is to be broadly based, Rubin says.

“It’s not supposed to be specialized. That’s what graduate school is for.” The central philosophy of a liberal arts education — learning to read well, write well and think critically — should help anyone in any career.

That’s something McQuillan came to appreciate at UOP. “Before, I really did think I was going to be a pharmacist. It was more training,” she says. “Now, I go to classes to learn.”

Though she isn’t completely sure about her career plans, she knows she won’t be earning $90,000 a year as a pharmacist. She briefly considered transferring to a cheaper state school, but she loves the faculty and small class size at UOP, where tuition is $23,180. “It’s a financial burden, but we made it work,” she says.

Log on & learn about what schools offer

  • www.collegeboard.com: The College Board’s site includes the CSS Financial Aid Profile, college search, information about the SAT.
  • www.commonapp.org: The Common Application, used by 241 selective colleges and universities, is available for online application or can be printed out and mailed in.
  • www.finaid.org: This overall financial aid site has information on loans, scholarships and a financial aid calculator.
  • www.fafsa.ed.gov: The government’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid is required by those seeking Pell grants and other types of government aid; also required by many colleges for those seeking institutional aid.
  • www.wiredscholar.com: A college planning resource site from educational loan lender Sallie Mae includes college and scholarship searches, information about loans.

Discussion Questions

  1. How long does it typically take for students to settle on a major that truly interests them? Are any of your classmates thinking about changing majors? Do you have any plans to change majors? Explain.
  2. What references can you consult to investigate other areas of study as well as information on real-world job opportunities? What additional resources would you like to see offered? Explain.
  3. How do you feel about the curriculum they’re studying? Is it teaching you to read and write well and think critically? Why or why not? Are there any areas that aren’t adequately addressed?