Forbes - December 16, 2010

Dan Johnston does college aid presentations and workshops at over 50 high schools each year as the Regional Director of Pennsylvania’s Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA). One of his most frustrating examples of bad college advice is: “If you don’t know what major you want, go as an undeclared student. You can decide on your major after a few basic courses.”

Johnston says that, “For most students that is the worst advice possible. Granted, there will always be students whose best initial choice is undeclared, but they represent a very small percentage of students. The idea that a large number of students without a career plan can take a few basic courses, then suddenly ‘find’ themselves (to the tune of $20,000 to $50,000 per year), is sadly pathetic and needlessly expensive.”


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Forbes - December 16, 2010

Dan Johnston does college aid presentations and workshops at over 50 high schools each year as the Regional Director of Pennsylvania’s Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA). One of his most frustrating examples of bad college advice is: “If you don’t know what major you want, go as an undeclared student. You can decide on your major after a few basic courses.”

Johnston says that, “For most students that is the worst advice possible. Granted, there will always be students whose best initial choice is undeclared, but they represent a very small percentage of students. The idea that a large number of students without a career plan can take a few basic courses, then suddenly ‘find’ themselves (to the tune of $20,000 to $50,000 per year), is sadly pathetic and needlessly expensive.”

A better option is to audit a college course as a high school student or attend a community college and take a few courses without the big expense of attending full-time at a four-year college. Some high schools now offer dual enrollment with colleges so that high school students can earn college credits while still attending high school.

Going to college as an undeclared major often leads to students having to spend extra semesters or years in college to get the classes that they need for the major that they eventually choose. Often those students take on more debt as a result.

With all due respect, however, choosing a major is no easy decision in today’s world. The pace of change in the workplace is so rapid that today’s hot field of study may lead to the unemployment line by the time a student graduates four years later.

A career plan is a good start. But with high school guidance counselors stretched beyond capacity with non-college issues, and responsible for 250-1,000 students each, a career plan is not likely to happen for the student and parents that sit back and wait.

At community colleges that small percentage of students that Johnston referred to as being good candidates for the undeclared major, can test the waters with less expense and pressure. For those kids that will benefit most from the full college experience, and may need pushed out the door to get there, the undecided major should still be part of an overall plan to give the student the best chance to succeed. In any case, an undecided major should not be an open-ended trial.

Chris Teare, the Director of College Counseling at the Antilles School in St Thomas, Virgin Islands, pointed out that “Sometimes families believe–or have been told–that undecided young people should go to larger universities that offer many different programs from which to choose. I disagree. Larger institutions are far less likely to be able to provide the personal care, attention and advising that smaller colleges offer.

Undecided kids in large universities often drift aimlessly from program to program, major to major, sometimes having to spend additional years once they settle on a focus because they can’t immediately schedule the courses they need to graduate.”

He adds, “An essential byproduct of a true undergraduate liberal arts education is the capacity to know oneself more fully, largely through great teaching and careful advising, and thereby to select a major more thoughtfully. The students I am fine seeing go off to larger universities are those with absolutely clear, well-founded academic majors already in mind. Strong personalities who know exactly what they want can be very successful at large universities. The undecided too often wander their way through, to no great result. I believe that undecided young people need help making good choices more than they need a campus full of options.”

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