A little over a week ago the Wall Street Journal published a short piece entitled, “Today’s Anxious Freshmen Declare Majors Far Faster Than Their Elders:Weak job market and high debt loads prompt broad shift away from intellectual exploration.” They cited data from their own small but random survey of colleges and universities suggesting that more and more freshmen declare their majors earlier. While the article and those interviewed for it speculated about a variety of factors that might be driving this phenomenon, the conclusion seemed pretty clear: college is now much less about discovering yourself first and finding a career later and much more about locking into a track for a career.
I thought it would be interesting to see if our own data reflected a similar trend. We were able to examine data over a similar time period, exploring the differences between students who entered Augustana as freshmen in the fall of 2007 and students who entered Augustana as freshmen in the fall of 2013. In addition, I thought it would be interesting to expand on the Wall Street Journal analysis since they aren’t clear about when the institutional data they presented was collected (in the fall of the first year? in the spring of the first year? at the beginning of the second year?). So we compared the two freshmen cohorts noted above in three ways. First, what proportion of the class indicated that they were undecided on their major when they applied to Augustana? Second, what proportion of those undecided students had declared a major by the beginning of their second year? And third, what proportion of the entire freshman class had declared a major by the beginning of the second year?
Our Augustana results seem to parallel the findings reported by the Wall Street Journal. During the application process, 16% (111 of 713) of the 2007 first-year cohort indicated that they were undecided about their major. During the 2013 cohort’s application process, only 11% (70 of 627) selected “undecided” when asked about their intended major. Interestingly, the proportion of these initially undecided students who had chosen a major by the beginning of their second year did not change appreciably between the fall of 2008 and the fall of 2014. Of the undecided majors from the 2007 cohort, 68% (63 of 92 – the remaining 19 did not persist to the second year) had still not selected a major one year later. From the 2013 cohort, 69% (40 of 58 – the remaining 12 did not return to Augustana) of the initially undecided remained undeclared.
The biggest difference between the two cohorts can be found in the proportion of students who had declared a major by the beginning of the second year. Remember, the position taken by the Wall Street Journal article was that students take less time for intellectual pursuits and narrow their focus on a major earlier than in previous years. At Augustana, It appears that we are seeing a similar phenomenon. While 54% of the 2007 first-year cohort had not yet declared their major by the beginning of the second year, only 36% of the 2013 cohort were still undeclared majors by the beginning of the second year.
So . . . is this a bad thing?
Honestly, I’m not sure. In the end, I don’t know that we will have much success telling students that they are wrong to respond to external pressures of a tight job market and high student debt by choosing their major earlier. That kind of approach is likely to come across as tone-deaf to some very real concerns. It seems to me that this data re-emphasizes the importance of timely and substantive conversations between students and all of us who impact their education (faculty, administrators, work supervisors, residence life staff, student life staff, and fellow students) that push students to develop themselves even as they are preparing for life after college. Personal and intellectual development and career preparation ought to be a “both/and” enterprise.
If we can do that, our students are likely to grow and change in just the ways that we hoped they would.
Make it a good day,