• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.



When community college students don't have an intended major.


December 9, 2015

This one is an unapologetic attempt to steal ideas.

For the educators out there: what does your college do with students who don’t know what they want to major in?

At many four-year schools, it’s standard practice not to declare a major until the sophomore year at the earliest. But at most community colleges that I know, students have to declare upon matriculation. (Non-matriculated students don’t, for obvious reasons.)  

In some fields, that makes good sense. A student who wants Auto Tech or Culinary pretty much knows it from day one, and both programs get specific very quickly. It’s relatively rare for a history major to take the “transmissions” class as an elective and fall in love with it. Even in the more traditionally academic areas, some students arrive with a pretty clear sense of what they want.

But many -- perhaps most -- don’t.  

Most community colleges that I’ve seen put students who don’t know what they want in the generic gen ed/transfer program. The idea -- which isn’t wrong as far as it goes -- is that gen ed classes transfer to just about any major, so the student can hone her writing and analytical skills while buying time for lightning to strike. And that can happen.

But that only works if the student has a strong sense of forward momentum. Without a goal, she’s likely to wander off when things get difficult. Students without goals tend to have more fragile motivation; being put in an academic holding tank isn’t likely to help.

One way to handle it is to try to move the “goal identification” point earlier, and we’re on that. Career interest inventories make the most sense at new student orientation, or even earlier. Meta-majors can help, since they ask for only a vague initial sense, rather than a specific choice. 

But are there other approaches that work on the ground? If the student gets through orientation still without much idea of what she wants, has anyone found a productive way to help her figure it out?  



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