Don’t Force Students to Choose a Major

The college major is important. For the college graduate, it says this is what I studied…this is where my competencies lie…this is why I am employable. But, is the college major really a testament of all those things? Or is it just another box we push students into, telling them to check here, sign here, go here, shepherding them around, as if they are merely cattle.

As with most things, the actuality falls somewhere in the middle. The academic major is important, but it’s not all-encompassing.

While presenting a teacher’s convention recently, a handful of high school educators seemed shocked to find out that the academic major is also, just a matter of semantics.

Consider this body of research done by The Chronicle of Higher Education, where we find that 93% of the employers surveyed said that “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate’s] undergraduate major. They were not saying that a student’s major does not matter, but that, overwhelmingly, the thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills a job candidate has acquired in college are more important than the specific field in which the applicant earned a degree.”

Students who want to become lawyers will study law. Students who want to become nurses will study nursing. But, the student who studies law can go on to become a nurse, just as the student who studies English can go on to become a lawyer. Choosing an academic major, in many respects, has just as much to do with students’ occupational aspirations as it has to do with students’ passions. Yes, their passions. If a student loves to write, perhaps they should major in English or creative writing. Similarly, if a student absolutely loves math, perhaps they should major in math or accounting. It doesn’t mean these students will only be suited to be English teachers or accountants, respectively. They can also be doctors, legal advocates, or entrepreneurs.

In that same article, 95% employers surveyed said it was important that job candidates “demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity; intercultural skills; and the capacity for continued new learning.”

Those traits aren’t germane to specific majors or academic programs. So instead of forcing, steering, or nudging students to declare majors, instead, we should be helping them explore their passions and then challenge students to utilize their passions to develop integrity, cultural sensitivity, interpersonal communication skills, and a host of other traits employers seek in new employees. If students can successfully acquire those skills, the name of their academic major will become just a matter of semantics.

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