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Major concern

What’s your major? It’s the defining question for college students — and the cliché that’s launched a thousand friendships and romances. It’s also a question that has become harder for students to answer.

Blame it on the growing number of possibilities. Colleges and universities reported nearly 1,500 academic programmes to the department of education in 2010; 355 were added to the list over the previous 10 years as colleges, to stay competitive and current, adopted new disciplines like homeland security and global studies, cyberforensics and agroecology.

At the University of Michigan and Arizona State University, students choose from a dizzying 251 and 250 majors, respectively. DePaul University in Chicago offers 24 more majors than it did in 2002, for a total of 98.

And graduating with a double (or triple) major, minor or concentration as a way to hedge bets in an uncertain job market has become increasingly popular; the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded with double majors rose 70 per cent between 2001 and 2011, according to the US Education Department.

Some students go to college knowing exactly what they want to do. But most don’t. At Penn State, 80 per cent of freshmen — even those who have declared a major — say they are uncertain about their major, and half will change their minds after they declare, sometimes more than once. How to decide?

THE NEW EXPLORER

Colleges and universities have vested interests in students declaring early. Retention rates for declared students are better, and they are more likely to graduate in four years. But college officials also recognise that deciding on a major can be overwhelming, especially when coupled with the fear that a wrong choice will result in added semesters and tuition. “Students no longer have the luxury of stumbling into a major or making mistakes,” says Neeta P. Fogg, a research professor at Drexel University’s Center for Labor Markets and Policy, and a co-author of “College Majors Handbook With Real Career Paths and Payoffs.”

“Exploratory” is the new undeclared. Colleges have moved away from the negative-sounding “undecided” label to encourage students to experiment with unfamiliar disciplines and, perhaps, discover a passion and career path. “We want to remind them that they have an active role” in their academic choices, says Mary Beth Collier, the dean of academic advising at the State University of New York at New Paltz. At SUNY, exploratory students are urged to try new subjects using general education electives.

Ms Collier tells students: “You’ve taken the same six subjects since kindergarten. If you don’t know your major, don’t come here and take the same subjects expecting to figure it out.” That can mean fulfilling a US studies requirement with a political science or black studies course instead of a rehash of US history that you should have learned in high school.

Some schools have made exploration official. At the University of Florida, where 61 per cent of students change their majors by the end of their second year, there are three exploratory tracks — engineering and science, humanities and letters, and social and behavioural — that students can declare for three semesters before choosing a specialised major. At the University of Cincinnati, undecided students can enrol in an exploratory studies programme.

COVER YOUR BASES

Advisers caution: Don’t abandon subjects that you may need later. Students often don’t realise that many popular majors — psychology, social sciences, business — have maths and science requirements. You might have to forgo majoring in economics, if come junior year you have to make up courses in calculus and statistics.

This requires thinking ahead, says Fritz Grupe, the creator of MyMajors.com and an emeritus professor of computer science at the University of Nevada. You may not know what to do with the rest of your life at age 18, but you can cover your bases with prudent planning. Some majors have a curriculum that follows a tight sequence of courses. It’s easier to switch out of engineering than it is to take it up (if that’s possible at all) later in your college career.

The “biggest mistake” students make, Dr. Grupe adds, is failing to research what’s required of the major. Nursing may sound attractive because “you like to help people,” he says, but nursing students take the same demanding maths and science curriculum as pre-med students. Colleges “do not make decisions in a vacuum,” Dr. Fogg says. They are constantly tweaking their offerings. The US Department of Education’s list shows clusters of new programmes in established fields of study that mirror scientific, cultural and societal developments.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Quirkier additions to the list obviously reflect marketplace trends and student demand, like culinary science / culinology, digital arts, casino management and sports communication. At Montclair State University in New Jersey, which offers 300 majors, minors and concentrations, a new fashion studies’ major has been hugely popular, thanks to the university’s proximity to Manhattan; with Madison Square Garden and Giants Stadium in sight, it also saw opportunity in a sports industry and event-planning major within its business school.

Most employers are looking for transferable skills — the ability to problem solve, work in teams, write and communicate, and think critically, says Ms. Collier of SUNY New Paltz. It makes no sense, she says, to “suffer through a major” because you think it will lead to employment. “We tell students, ‘Find a major that makes you intellectually engaged, and deepens your understanding of the world.’ ”

At the same time, cautions Dr Fogg, the stakes for college students today couldn’t be higher: 41 per cent of graduates are employed in jobs that don’t require a degree. Many employers lack the resources and patience for on-the-job training, she says, and are looking for graduates who are “shelf-ready employees.” So pick up job-related skills and work experience, she says, and of course follow your heart.

Nytns