But Dominguez wasn’t chosen for the highly competitive business track when she was accepted to the University of Colorado at Boulder — “a blessing in disguise,” she said, because it gave her the chance to take courses in science and health. And she enjoyed those so much she’s now majoring in integrative physiology with plans to open a chain of protein cafes.
“I tell people you’ll know when you’re in the right major. If you don’t feel it, it’s not the right major for you,” said Dominguez, 20, a junior and a peer adviser to classmates who are undecided about what to study. “Just keep looking.”
That’s something CU Boulder and a handful of mostly small liberal arts colleges are encouraging at the very time when many other universities are going in the opposite direction and pushing their undergraduates to lock into a major early on.
“We’re trying to create an environment where it’s okay to change your mind, and it’s okay to not know what you want to do,” said James Murray, assistant director of advising at CU Boulder’s Exploration & Advising Center, a bright and airy space just off a sunny atrium on the distinctive campus of sandstone buildings surrounded by the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
That approach is on one side of a widening divide over whether colleges should be places where students can explore until they find their passion or should confer degrees as quickly, directly and efficiently as possible, so graduates can promptly start to earn a living.
Dickinson College in Pennsylvania this summer is debuting a program called “Explore More: Jumpstart to Connecting the Dots” to help students consider their strengths and interests and what they might most like to study. Boston College is offering something similar, called “True North” — a reference to the geographic North Pole, rather than the magnetic pole of a compass — during orientation this summer, for the first time, to new students and their parents.
“We tell them, ‘Have your antennas up like explorers and take it all in, because we’re going to give you opportunities, almost like a buffet, to explore and discover,’ ” said MarySheila McDonald, who, until this summer, was dean of the School of Business at La Salle University in Philadelphia, another institution that encourages a less hurried way of deciding on majors.
The movement also raises questions about who is being sped through the academic-major pipeline and who gets to enjoy the luxury of browsing; the almost paralyzing number of choices of majors at some schools; and the difficulty students have connecting vaguely labeled academic disciplines (“integrative physiology,” for example) with real-world careers.
CU Boulder’s Program in Exploratory Studies began in 2019 for some students and was opened to all students last year. About a quarter of new undergraduates signed up.
They get personalized attention from a team of 10 advisers in a warren of offices hung with inspirational artwork and stocked with colorful brochures: “I want to . . . work outside.” “I want to . . . plan events.” “I want to . . . work in health care. How do I get there?”
At the time the program started, about 40 percent of students who declared a major when they arrived were changing it later, said Shelly Bacon, associate vice provost for advising and exploratory studies.
“We were just trying to get more intentional about creating this infrastructure for students who have long existed on our campus, who are exploring,” Bacon said. Without such help, “we might see students sticking with a major that might not be the best fit for them.”
That leads to dissatisfaction among a surprising proportion of students and graduates. More than a third of bachelor’s degree recipients nationwide said in a Gallup survey that they would go back and change their major if they could. Only about half of college students strongly agree that their major will lead to a good job.
But changing majors can throw students off track at a time when many are already taking longer than expected to finish college and concern about the cost — and the burden of the loans that many use to pay for it — makes them eager to get out into the workforce.
“I do completely understand that drive to get students to declare earlier, because there’s a connection to, ‘We don’t want you lingering too long and increasing the amount of debt,’ ” Bacon said.
Indecision about a major has a bigger effect than is generally understood.
This often means it takes them longer to graduate, increasing the time and cost of their college educations.
“The response has been, ‘Let’s take choice away from them.’ How about if we help students make meaningful decisions?” said Timothy Klein, project lead of True North at BC.
In some cases, students now have to decide what they want to major in before they even apply to college, said Shonn Colbrunn, executive director of the Boerigter Center for Calling and Career at Hope College in Michigan.
“I do get it. I get the idea, especially at a liberal arts college where it costs a lot of money and a parent thinks, ‘I’m not so interested in taking a leap of faith.’ ”
But Colbrunn’s and other institutions are giving their students the latitude to leap. At Hope, incoming students take a test to determine their interests and a mandatory first-year course to learn about their major and career options.
“If you restrict choice and have students lock in sooner, it makes it easier to run your university,” Colbrunn said. “We’d rather have students figure out what’s right for them.”
Like others who do this work, he said many students arrive at college having followed the résumé-building playbook or having been closely guided by hovering parents, and they haven’t had much practice making decisions on their own.
“Their parents have been like, ‘Now you will go to soccer, and now you will study trombone,’ ” said Alzada Tipton, provost and dean of the faculty at Whitman College in Washington state, which gives students until the end of their sophomore year to pick a major.
Caroline Schumann entered La Salle University in Philadelphia as a nursing major. But when she took a required first-year anatomy lab, she didn’t like it.
Then Schumann found herself in a marketing class she did like. She’s now an incoming junior and a newly declared marketing major with a minor in digital arts and media.
Even at a university that lets students find their own way, she said the process was traumatic.
“I was confused, I was upset,” said Schumann, 19. “I didn’t know what my parents would think.”
Daisheau Player was planning to go to law school when she started at Dickinson. But when she mentioned that she was also interested in chemistry, her adviser suggested that she take a class in it.
Now she’s a chemistry major interested in biomedical ethics on track for medical school.
“I think a lot of people are worried about cost or what their parents think will make them a lot of money,” said Player, 21, who’s entering her senior year. But friends who have, like her, changed their majors “are much happier when they find out what they actually like.”
This isn’t a new idea. It’s an old one, said Tara Fischer, dean of academic advising at Dickinson. Using college as a time and place to search for purpose “used to be standard advice, especially for liberal arts students.”
But changing a major or even dropping a class is harder for lower-income students than for higher-income ones, said Murry, with CU Boulder.
“A kid who does get financial aid is going to be more worried than a kid who doesn’t get financial aid” about the kinds of repercussions that can come with waiting to declare, or changing, a major.
Added Tipton: “We’re denying some students in the name of academic success the experience of exploration.”