My oldest son is now a junior in high school. In addition to my freak-out because his college days are looming, I’m also panicking over the prospect that he should decide what he might want to do for the rest of his life.
My freak-out is partly due to economics. Declaring a major is a big deal these days. Pick the right one, and you could be gainfully employed for a long time. But select the wrong one, and you could join the ranks of the unemployed.
According to a recent study, nearly 9% of college graduates are unemployed. So despite accruing $26,000 in debt, on average, many grads have nothing to show for their four-year degrees—except for a nicely-framed diploma.
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Do I really want to invest over $22,000 a year (the average going rate for public colleges) on higher education only to have him be unemployed? Of course not.
When it comes to choosing a major, in my opinion, gone are the days when liberal arts degrees could suffice: Today, a student must choose a major that's more specific—and hopefully, more prosperous.
This leaves parents in a tricky spot: Beyond making sure that our kids' dorm rooms are adequately stocked with the latest IKEA accessories and ramen noodles, should we also get involved in the details of their studies? Or should we allow them to venture off “undecided,” so they can explore a variety of courses before settling on a major in their second or third year?
Why I Regret Rushing to Choose My Own Major
Many adults still don’t know what they want to be when they "grow up," so how realistic is it to expect a teenager to know this answer? My son has no idea what he wants to do this weekend—let alone for the rest of his life.
When I was his age, I had no clue what kind of job I'd want to do when I was in my 30s and 40s. But I felt pressured to “just pick something,” so I checked the box for marketing. Everyone else in my family had done marketing or sales, so it seemed like the right thing to do. Instead, I wish someone had asked, “What are you really excited about in life?” Then I could have considered marrying that answer with a major and a career.
Ultimately, I pursued a marketing degree, and successfully followed that path for ten years post-college. Then I got bored and restless, and figured out my true passion—writing. I’m grateful that I discovered what makes me hum each day, but after writing college loan checks to the bank for eight years, I'm mad that I wasted all that time and money ... which brings me back to my soon-to-be high school graduate. I would like to spare him the same frustration—and spare myself the expense.
What the Experts Have to Say
Some people disagree with my desire not to pressure my son. One of them is Dr. Fritz Grupe, Ed.D., a retired college professor and consultant for MyMajors.com, a resource site designed to help high schoolers decide on a major.
Although Dr. Grupe says that 80% of incoming freshman haven't declared a major, he thinks that kids should pick a major ASAP—mostly because of money. For starters, many majors come with prerequisite, first-semester courses. Not taking those right away can set your teen's educational schedule back an entire year. And more time in college equals more tuition—not to mention that another year in college also means lost earning potential after graduation.
Some states have instituted a “slacker tax” in response to a trend in which students are taking as long as six years to get a degree.
As if extra tuition and lost income weren't bad enough, Dr. Grupe adds that some states—like California—have instituted a “slacker tax,” which makes students pay a higher tuition at public schools after a certain number of credits. This is in response to a trend in which students are taking as long as six years to get a degree. At the University of Texas at Austin, for example, only 53% of students graduate after four years. Schools want to move seniors out, so they can move new students in. Thus, the “slacker tax” for college students who are, well, slackers.
How My Son and I Will Strike a Balance
While I don’t want my child to spend an extra two years at college simply because he’s having fun, I also don’t want him to hurry up and "just pick something." So although I agree with some of Dr. Grupe’s logic, I don’t believe that choosing a major right away is always the best answer.
I guess it’s a balance. In an ideal world, my son would know what he wants to do while he's still in high school. He'd choose a college accordingly, love his major, graduate after four years, prosper in his job and be passionate about that career for the rest of his life.
But that’s not realistic for most of our kids (or us).
That's what I’m wrestling with. I agree that it makes the most financial sense to choose a major early in a college career. But I also want my son to have the time and space to explore, which is why I'm encouraging him to take a year off and travel before committing to college.
Even though he'll probably still enter college “undeclared,” I hope the freedom to see the world (and contemplate his own place in it) will give him extra clarity. And maybe, just maybe, he'll be able to pick a major that he’s passionate about within that crucial first year.
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