Should college-bound seniors choose a major before they go?
Some students arrive at college with a clear idea of their course of study and future career. Others are unsure, and need time to explore and discover academic subjects that best fit their interests and skills. But as tuition costs continue to rise, some parents and students say it pays to nail down that focus right away.
"You do have to have an idea of what you want to do," said Mark Boggie, a board member of the American School Counselor Association. "Otherwise you may spend six to seven years in college if you change your major two or three times."
Boggie, a high school counselor in Arizona, said parental attitudes have changed from a decade ago. "There was a little more tolerance for exploration at the college level," he said. "It was not as costly at that time, so there was a little more latitude to explore."
Ann Melone, a counselor at New Jersey's Leonia High School, says the debate, at heart, is really about the purpose of undergraduate education. Is college about training for a specific job or profession? Or about developing critical thinking skills and being exposed to a wide range of fields?
"There's no one answer," Melone said. "People have different interpretations of what college does or should be."
But the question of what happens after graduation day looms large for some families, even four years before the fact, Melone said. "Families are really stretching to send their kids to college. The cost has gone up disproportionately to salary increases."
Kevin Porras, 18, of Leonia, N.J., is heading to New York University this fall. Not only does he know he wants to be a doctor, but he knows what type of doctor: plastic surgeon. He'll major in biology. "It's an honorable profession, you can make a good living and it's interesting," he said.
He feels confident knowing that the next four years are mapped out. "I know what I really need to be focusing on, and what I need to do to make the transition to medical school. I'm able to stay on task. I think it will make it easier to go through school, to know what you're going for, to have a goal."
Porras, the oldest of three brothers, said this has made his parents less anxious than parents of some of his classmates. "Because I knew where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do, my parents didn't have to worry too much about me, they weren't on my case. It was really pretty simple for them."
Melone said that sense of purpose can be academically helpful, especially for those entering the hard sciences. "The student knows the classes are going to be difficult."
Zachary Rhodes, 18, another Leonia senior, admits that his curiosity is omnivorous. "I'm interested in so many subjects that I'm not sure what I want to major in," he said. "I want to go into college and take a wide array of courses." Rhodes will enter Elon University in North Carolina this year.
For now, Rhodes is considering a career in sports marketing or management, which would entail a graduate degree in business down the road. But Rhodes doesn't know if he wants to major in business, political science or history. He'll decide at the end of sophomore year. He also said he might discover something entirely different.
His parents support him, Rhodes said. "They really want me to learn to think outside the box, so by getting a piece of information from all different subjects, all different walks of life, I can equate that to any profession I go into."
David Rhodes, Zachary's father, said, "College is about finding what you want to do."
David entered college in the 1970s pretty sure he was going to be a doctor, but later switched his major from biology to fine arts. He went on to careers in photography, graphic arts and educational technology.
"Where you start in life may not be where you end up in life; it's a journey," the elder Rhodes said. "I don't think personally there are a lot of 17- or 18-year-olds who know what they want to do."
Mediation: When parents are pushing their child to pick a major but the student doesn't agree, Melone tries to work out a compromise plan. "It might be resolved through a student investigating an internship in a field they might want to go into after college," she said. "If they don't want to be a business major for example, but the parents feel some knowledge or experience (in business) would be good, an internship would be a good idea."