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Planning for College Majors

 

QuestionsHave you heard this suggestion – don’t pay for college unless your child knows what they want to major in and unless it will lead to a high paying career? In a time when college costs and typical student loan debt have skyrocketed, it seems logical for parents to feel concern about the value of college with an unclear major and career path. Before you try to dictate a particular course of study for your child, here are some facts about college majors to consider.

Undecided Is Typical
While some teens have a clear and accurate sense of their future career path, most do not. Don’t panic if your homeschooler doesn’t know what they want to study in college. In fact, about 80% of students enter college undecided about their major. Of students who declare a major about 50% end up switching majors. In other words, not knowing may be very frustrating for parents but it is quite normal.

General Education First
Most college students take primarily general education courses for the first year. These general requirements give students an overview of a variety of subjects including English, math, science, social science, and humanities. Within general education requirements there are a choice of courses. Students who think they will end up with a STEM major will likely take more intensive math or science courses for example. As students take general education courses, they will work toward graduation by completing requirements and have the opportunity to explore interests.

Honesty is the Best Policy
Telling your child they MUST major in something that leads to a high paying career, such as medicine, can have the unintended result of making the student spend extra time in college. Students who choose majors that do not reflect their interests or abilities are likely to waste more time in college and possibly leave without a degree. One of the biggest considerations in planning college costs is the time to graduation. Students who feel pushed into a major that isn’t a good fit are very likely to end up changing it and adding expensive additional semesters to college. While it is true that engineering may be a field with good job prospects, if your homeschooler isn’t good at math or doesn’t find engineering appealing they are not likely to succeed in this field. Chances are they will waste a few semesters, get some lower grades, and end up switching to something else.

Not Every School Offers Every Major
For most students, major choice will be flexible once they enter college so undecided students typically do just fine. However, while most schools offer the most common majors and programs, such as English or chemistry, a few more specialized fields have more limited availability. If your homeschooler is considering a more specialized field such as occupational therapy, accounting, engineering, or computer science, it is important that they research and select a school that offers their intended major prior to entering college.

More Major Choices
One change that surprises many parents is that colleges offer more and more major choices. While a generation ago it was more common for students to choose from a smaller list of traditional majors such as history, biology, and political science. Students now find very diverse and wide ranging offerings at many schools. Too many choices can make it tough to decide and may encourage students to consider double or triple majors.

Majors Don’t Dictate Careers
Studies show that the majority of people work in careers unrelated to their majors. Some careers, such as teaching, demand a very specific educational plan to meet certification requirements. While majors may help students toward a specific career, many careers are open to students with a variety of majors.  While students may be focusing on majors, surveys of employers find that they are more focused on skill areas. Success in the workplace is based on skills that go beyond the college major “Hiring managers complain that they often find today’s college graduates lacking in interpersonal skills, problem solving, effective written and oral communication skills, the ability to work in teams, and critical and analytical thinking.”

What Parents Can Do to Help

Visit Career Services
Encourage your student to make good use of career planning services on campus. Career planning services are included as part of student tuition and many centers offer great resources including interest testing, internship planning, and career skills workshops. The career planning center is great stop to include on your college visits. Students are much more likely to visit the career center during college if they visited it before they enrolled.

Pay Attention to Advising
Not all colleges are equal when it comes to student advising. At some schools students get quality advising from dedicated faculty or professional advisers. At other schools advising is more hit and miss and prior to declaring a major your student may not be getting a lot in the way of support. While you don’t want to be a helicopter parent, college is a huge investment and it is appropriate to keep a dialogue open with your student about advising, major, and career planning.

Talk Before College About Costs and Majors
Parents often assume that of course their kids will graduate in four years and are then surprised when students change majors a few times and haven’t graduated after four years. Before your student starts college is a good time to talk about your expectations and to make sure your student understands the relationship between changing their major repeatedly and not graduating college on time.

Don’t Assume You Know the Best Major
Sometimes what parents think they know about majors is actually wrong. For example, parents may assume that a business major is the key to getting a good job, when in fact unemployment rates may be high for that major. Trying to force an adult child into a particular major or career path rarely works and it may leave your student with low grades and an uncompleted degree. Take time to listen to what interests them and encourage them to do research.

Support Career Exploration
Job shadowing, internships, and mentors are all ways to engage in major and career exploration. Students can often begin these activities while homeschooling high school and can continue during college. Recent college graduates report that internships are a helpful way to explore careers and gain employment skills.

 

2 comments

  1. Kristin

    My daughther has many interests, she is considering being a research librarian, English teacher, an early childhood teacher with a specialty in deaf education and a speech language pathologist.

    Would she be better to be “undecided” or pick one choice or does it depend on the school? How would she know how hard it is to switch between majors while in school?

  2. Barbara Hettle

    Hi Kristin,
    It sounds like your daughter has diverse interests and is currently undecided. That’s okay and it is appropriate for her to list that on her applications or she could list something like undecided/education. Colleges know most students are undecided and that’s fine. As she makes up her college lists she should be aware that some of her interests such as deaf education or speech language pathology may not be offered at all schools.

    Colleges vary pretty widely in how they handle majors. At some colleges students are admitted to a particular division of the college – so to Arts and Sciences or Engineering for example. They may have to apply to switch. Some colleges also require students to apply to be admitted to their major. This is particularly a concern for some competitive majors such as computer science. As this varies so much from school to school this is a great thing to ask about on college visits.

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