By Andrew J. Perrin
As students settle into college this fall, they’re likely to hear one question over and over again: What’s your major? The honest answer should be “I don’t know yet.” But far too many students feel pressure to choose a major too early and stick with it too firmly.
The percentage of students focused on “getting a better job” has never been higher, with more than 85% citing it as a very important reason to attend college. There’s nothing wrong with that; higher salaries and better prospects have been top motivations since at least the 1970’s. Education is about more than job readiness, but families have a right to expect their investment of time and tuition to pay off.
What’s worrisome is that today’s students think there’s only a narrow path to worldly success. More students than ever are arriving on campus convinced that only a handful of majors lead to good careers, and they’re flocking toward business, marketing, engineering, and computer science. More than 90% of incoming freshmen report they’ve already decided on a course of study before they’ve cracked a textbook or chatted with a professor.
That’s a shame, because it leads students to miss the critical factors that affect their employment prospects, to say nothing of their intellectual growth.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I teach, offers over 70 majors and minors. Even the students who arrive on campus well-prepared for college don’t understand the full range of opportunities available. Few high schools offer subjects like linguistics, sociology, marine sciences, anthropology, or geography, or languages like Korean, Dutch, or Arabic. When students decide on a major before at least briefly considering new fields, they are leaving on the table knowledge, skills, and ideas that could prove valuable in the workplace and the wider world.
It’s true that graduates from certain majors have higher average pay. But those averages mask enormous variation within majors, and they lead students to ignore critical parts of their education that matter just as much to long-range success. Internships and experiences outside the classroom help students connect the issues they encounter with the ideas they study. And opportunities to do research alongside faculty members reveal what it takes to patiently build new knowledge.
Our brand-new general education curriculum — covering all the classes you take outside a major — emphasizes long-term capacities like analyzing evidence, addressing tough questions, and working with people from different cultures and backgrounds. We need students to discover new disciplines early and study a wide range of subjects, so they have a broad base of knowledge instead of a narrow specialty. Students will have these experiences regardless of the major they ultimately choose, making them ready for leadership, citizenship, and success on the job no matter their major.
Vanishingly few of today’s college students will end up working in a steady, stable career from now until they retire, which should be sometime in the 2070’s. Neither economists nor fortune tellers have a good record of predicting employment trends, so even the best-qualified graduates will find themselves adjusting to new realities over time.
The emerging economy rewards those who are passionate about their work; who can think carefully, critically, and strategically; who can approach big questions with evidence and an open mind; and who can work and communicate with many different kinds of people.
Those are the same qualities that make people better citizens and leaders, and students can develop them through a solid education, including a wide range of disciplines. A major is not a job. It’s not a career. It’s an opportunity for in-depth study of a field, a topic, a whole branch of human knowledge. it’s about developing expertise, asking and answering good questions using evidence, and learning a disciplined way of thinking about the world and acting on it.
Don’t make the mistake of choosing too quickly or for the wrong reasons, and don’t be afraid to change directions as you discover new things. The world needs people educated in every area of human knowledge. Work hard, study broadly, and challenge your beliefs. You will be a better person, citizen, leader — and contributor to our vast and ever-evolving economy — because of it.
College is full of choices. But don’t worry about your major just yet.
Andrew J. Perrin is a professor of sociology and director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he specializes in the sociology of democracy. He led the process of reimagining UNC’s general education curriculum, known as the IDEAs in Action curriculum.