Let’s Kill the College Major

Let’s Kill the College Major

by Jeffrey Selingo

A proposal for a new university in Canada recently caught my eye for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that its students wouldn’t have majors. Instead, the students would be able to “distinguish themselves through practical and demonstrable skills in four areas of focus—technology, entrepreneurship/management, health professions, and creative industries.”

For most college students, the idea of a major is outdated in a 21st Century economy in a constant state of flux. College majors are for the most part an organizing function for the faculty of an institution who want to have departments for their academic disciplines.

Sure, students need a structured curriculum to follow in order to get the classes they need to take a licensing exam or apply to medical school, but most majors don’t have such specific requirements. Do you need to be an undergraduate business major to take the GMAT and apply to business school? No.

As high-school students tour campuses this summer or their older counterparts get ready to start college this fall, instead of asking them their major, we should ask them one simple question: What problems do you want to solve?

Most 18-year-olds have no idea what they want to be when they grow up (many adults don’t, either, of course). But you can get many would-be college students to talk quite passionately about what they want to fix in the world. From such conversations, you can imagine a whole set of courses at almost any college that would engage such students but don’t fit neatly into a major’s bucket: find renewable sources of energy; bring water to the the drought-striken West; improve the delivery of news around the world.

As high-school students tour campuses this summer or their older counterparts get ready to start college this fall, instead of asking them their major, we should ask them one simple question: What problems do you want to solve?

Stanford University recently called such a pathway, “purpose learning.” As part of a yearlong design exercise to rethink undergraduate education, students suggested doing away with the major and replacing it with a “mission.”

Under such a scenario, the “I’m a biology major,” was replaced with “I’m learning human biology to eliminate world hunger,” or “I’m learning Computer Science and Political Science to rebuild how citizens engage with their governments.”

The goal of the exercise was to “help students select a meaningful course of study while in school, and then scaffold a clear arc for the first 10 – 15 years of their professional lives.”

For many students, a major is just a box to check on an application anyway. By the end of their first year, 1 in 4 freshmen change their minds about their field of study anyway. Another half of first-year students say they plan to change majors.

Students have plenty of options to choose from, of course. As a marketing strategy, colleges in recent years have come up with crazy new majors to entice students to enroll, from sports management to web design. Since 2000, there has been a 20% increase in the number of majors at American colleges and universities, according to an analysis of the U.S. Education Department data. A third of those new programs were in just two fields: health professions and military technologies/ applied sciences. The 1990s saw similar growth in the number of majors. Indeed, nearly 4 in 10 majors on today’s government list didn’t exist in 1990.

It’s time to kill the major or at the very least reduce the emphasis on it during the college application process and the first year of school.


One thought on “Let’s Kill the College Major

  1. This is one of the dumbest things I have ever heard. One might make an argument for elimination of major courses of study, but this isn’t it. The major course of study developed out of the desire on the part of society to know what a college or university was certifying in its graduates. (The colleges and universities themselves being part of that society.) When the earliest U.S. colleges were created, most students took much the same curriculum, but when the land grant colleges were formed and topics like engineering and other practical subjects began to be taught, it behooved those colleges to explain in more detail what courses of study their students would be taking and how long they would take.

    This was an extension of the same process that was going on in European Universities. And it had very little to do “the faculty of an institution who want to have departments for their academic disciplines.” All kinds of courses did show up on the borderlines of disciplines as they matured. In my field, the Physics people taught a course called “Chemical Physics” while the Chemistry people taught a course called “Physical Chemistry.” These things did sort themselves out but did not drive the process. Faculty still do teach out of multiple departments. And according to the tone of this author, academic majors are the same now as they were in 1850. But all kinds of majors have been created in that time (and modified and modified and tweaked) including electronics, electrical engineering, computer science, nutrition, molecular biology, genetics, sociology, etc. The creation of a major course of study involves consultation with knowledgeable people and organizations in the field and is not done in isolation. (My major course was approved by the American Chemical Society which has an arm that monitors the state of chemical education.

    It has been proven that students who enter college with goals persist and succeed at much higher rates that students who do not have goals, but as one who worked with college freshmen, getting them to state clear goals was like pulling teeth. At the end I was advocating that students have a structured goal development process that paralleled their course through college. Interestingly, the most students I saw who had clear, defined goals were in programs with very clearly delineated courses of study (nursing, pre-med, dentistry, and voc-tech programs with certificates that were gateways to jobs, etc.) Asking college freshman what problems they would like to solve is akin to asking beauty pageant contestants what their goals are and is about as likely to elicit coherent responses (world peace, freedom from hunger, etc.). Not that those goals are not admirable but problems such as those are rarely impacted by single individuals.

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