Under Economic Pressure, Students Choose College Majors Early

These days, college students are eager to declare a major that they think will lead to a lucrative job. But there can be a downside to making the decision in haste.

Gone are the days when American college students spent a few semesters — or even a few years — in college, exploring different fields of study until they found one that fit. Now college freshmen are anxiously declaring a major far sooner than past generations.

“The shift is being driven by pragmatism, cost and a stubbornly soft job market for college graduates,” The Wall Street Journal said.

Some universities have experienced a significant drop in undeclared first-year students. For instance, at Chicago’s DePaul University, just 16 percent of first-year students were undeclared, down from 31 percent seven years ago. Undeclared freshmen at the University of Denver dropped from 33 percent in 1995-96 to 6 percent now, the WSJ added.

“People don’t go to college anymore to be fulfilled or to gain life perspective; they go to get a great job,” said Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president for enrollment and marketing at DePaul. “There’s been a shift from hippie culture to corporate culture.”

More students now view their education as a means to get ahead. Eighty-two percent of college freshmen today said their schooling was critical to being “very well off financially,” up from 73 percent in 2006 and just 37 percent in 1971.

The quest for financial security doesn’t always lead where students expect.

In the 10 years between 2002 and 2012, health profession majors experienced a 129 percent increase, while computer and information services fell more than 17 percent, the Brookings Institution reports. Although working in health care seemed to be a smart choice for students a decade ago, some things have changed. Brookings said:

Pay and job security in health fields are not what they used to be, nor are they likely to be again. The rush for security reflected in those college-major statistics may not deliver what at least some of those graduates were probably expecting.

In contrast, there’s been a huge demand for software coders among employers, especially start-ups, but fewer students are now graduating in that field. Brookings recommends that students take a step back and look at the big picture before deciding a course of study.

Today’s students should be wary of picking majors only because they seem to promise a secure life. Instead, pick a major because of personal interest, because it equips people to handle and adapt to inevitable disruptions in the labor market, and because it prepares them for creating jobs (for themselves and others) by founding a firm.

I declared (pre)journalism as my major immediately. When I was a junior, I started having second thoughts about life as a news reporter, but I was so close to finishing college that I stayed with it and graduated.

Looking back, I wish I would have taken a year off between high school and college so I could have really put some thought into what I wanted to do with my life. It’s hard to make such a huge decision when you’re 18 and haven’t experienced much in life.

How did you go about declaring a college major? Share your comments below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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