Exploring paths of study: First-years must wait to declare academic majors
In an effort to encourage greater exploration of different paths of study, the Academic Affairs Committee (AAC) has presented and passed a motion this year preventing students from declaring a major until the beginning of their sophomore year.
Choosing a major is a decision that dictates the course of one’s academic career.
“At a liberal arts college, why would we not allow at least one entire academic year before we start pushing students into declaring majors?” Associate Professor of Education Adam Howard said. As the policy stood until just this month, students were asked midway through their first year at the College to either elect a major or file an “undeclared” statement.
However, requiring students to choose a major early in their college career not only impacts how students build foundations for future study, but it also impacts how departments organize their programs. “[Departments] really like [the earlier decision time] because it gets them engaged quickly and then they can begin to advise their students about the major right away,” Professor of Economics and Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs and Associate Dean of Faculty Michael Donihue said.
In many departments, majors receive priority to register for certain courses, while non-majors are restricted from signing up. “We heard all kinds of stories about students, who would have two majors, but never intended to complete them,” Donihue said. “It was just to get into some gateway course.”
Both Donihue and Howard do not cite this trend as the motivation for the change in policy. Rather, they say that the new policy is intended to encourage students not to lock themselves into a course of study until they are fully informed about their options. As a result of this change, academic departments may have to make their programs more flexible.
“They’ll have to decide whether [their programs are] going to require a change,” Donihue said. “Most of it will be those sophomore level classes, that [the departments will] have to look and see if they can still require a declaration of major or not. And in many instances I think [their policies] will have to change.”
However, for those select first -years, who know what they want to do from the outset, nothing will change. “You can still take the classes you would have otherwise,” Donihue said. “You just won’t officially declare until the beginning of your sophomore year.”
The AAC has been considering this change in the declaration policy for some time. “We went through a reaccredidation in 2007, which has spawned a lot of changes in the College,” Donihue said, “but one of the things we realized as we were doing a self-study in preparation for that, was that we couldn’t find another school that let kids pick majors as early as we do.”
Another subject of discussion in the AAC around that same time was the College’s advising system. Research into the situation revealed that many seniors reflecting upon their first-year advising experience felt it could have been better.
“Do you know how many [seniors] I’ve met—just this year…four or five, who wish that they had a different major?” Howard said. “But they got too far into it. No turning back. They don’t really like their major, they wish they had done something differently, but it’s too late.”
Students begin to lay the foundations for their academic careers during their first-year, and even earlier, when they first enroll in courses over the summer. “Kids arrived with their schedules already set. There wasn’t much for the advisor to say. And so, [we asked] could we establish a more meaningful relationship with the advisors?” Donihue said.
Since these advising issues were first identified in 2007, the College has conducted research on the matter and engaged in conversations with peer institutions. As a result, two summers ago the administration made a change to the system and incoming freshmen—the class of 2013—were put in contact with a departmental liaison to aid them in choosing their first courses. Furthermore, the current freshman class received their advisor assignments over the summer. This change gave them early access to a wide range of resources.
In this way, Donihue said, “If you come in knowing you’re going to be a chemistry major, you will have gone and picked a set of classes with the help of a departmental liaison and your first-year advisor for chemistry classes.”
Under this policy, less-decided students can still receive necessary guidance are encouraged to begin fulfilling distribution requirements. “[They] are meant to be foundational, so you should be doing them first, not last,” Donihue said.
“[The administration] basically wanted students to not feel pressured to have to go [into college] with [a major] already decided,” student AAC member Andy Estrada ’12 said. “So the idea behind it was that with that pressure gone, [students would] be more willing to explore more areas [and] take a class that they wouldn’t have otherwise taken.”
This most recent policy change aims to deter students from locking into a course of study before they have taken stock of their academic options. “We’re hopeful that in that first year students spend a little bit more time exploring,” Donihue said. “You may think you want to be a chemistry major, but it could be that, you know, there’s something else that really turns you on. And we want you to take some of those right-brain courses, too.”