Switching Majors — Changing an Epidemic of Poor Planning

As college students turn in papers and study for final exams to complete the fall semester, many are also filling out forms to change their majors. They have realized their chosen major is different than what they expected, they have developed interest in another major, or they have begun to think seriously about future career prospects.

An estimated 75 to 85 percent of college students in the U.S. change their majors before graduation, according to a recent report. Many students come to college with little to no idea of what they want to accomplish with their education. In many ways, our culture encourages college years as a time to "find yourself."

But saying college is the time to find yourself is a polite way of saying it’s OK to go to college without any plans. This exploration process is expensive. It increases the likelihood students will not graduate on time, that they will be strapped with unnecessary student loans, or waste a lot of their parents' or their money.

The average cost for tuition and fees is now up to $9,970 for in-state students, $25,620 for out-of-state students and $34,740 for private school students, the College Board reports. With the price of college increasing every year, even one semester spent in the wrong major is costly. It limits the opportunity to graduate early or to take elective courses that can further prepare students for their careers.

Furthermore, the cost of using college as a discovery period is not only high for students, but for states as well. Devoting unnecessary time and millions of dollars to increasingly expensive higher education institutions drains resources and money that could otherwise be put to more productive use in the economy.

Instead of students using college to discover what to study, college should be an intentional step toward a specific goal. When students enroll in college to gain the skills and knowledge they need to pursue their careers, they are investing in their futures.

There is silver lining for this epidemic - it’s preventable. There’s no reason why students can’t develop college and career roadmaps as early as high school or even middle school — the younger they make one, the better off they'll be. This doesn't mean students can't alter their career maps if they discover new interests and abilities while studying in college; the goal isn't to eliminate the possibility of switching majors, but to reduce preventable wasted tuition dollars and the burden of unnecessary student loans.

Parents and educators bear the responsibility to change this culture of poor planning. The first step is introducing students to learning opportunities that identify their abilities and spark career interests at an early age. And this kind of learning does not have to come in a classroom. An internship – even during high school – can help a student see subjects applied in a real-world work environment. It can also help a student narrow their potential career fields by revealing things he or she doesn’t enjoy.

But the second step is equally important; many students develop dreams for their futures but are uninformed about what it will take to get there. We need to counsel young students to understand what education and skills they need to actualize their dreams, and then help them chart a course to make it reality.

As parents, mentors and educators, it can be daunting to think about preparing students to make major life decisions like picking a college major. But it starts with a simple conversation built around fundamental questions like, “What kind of a career do you want?” and “What’s the path for getting there?” We have an important role to play as advisors, encouragers and information resources in helping our students answer these big questions.

As an economy, we can't afford an entire generation that treats higher education as a find yourself phase. As students, they can't afford to waste time and money floundering in the wrong major. When it comes to preparing our students for college and careers, we all need to work together to change from a culture of poor planning to informed investments.

Vince M. Bertram is president and CEO of Project Lead The Way and is a New York Times bestselling author with his books “Dream Differently: Candid Advice for America’s Students" and “One Nation Under Taught: Solving America’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Crisis.”

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