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A Crucial Question Colleges Should Ask Students


Here’s a question both high school and college students are wondering about. For that matter, so are their parents, who might end up paying for their student’s higher education degree. For educators, you likely think about this problem often. Put simply, the question goes something like this:

Does our current system of courses and majors meet the needs of today’s student?

It seems to me that colleges that continue to promote a growing list of “majors” are operating in an antiquated framework. According to Jeff Selingo, author of College (Un)Bound, “For most college students, the idea of a major is outdated in a 21st Century economy in a constant state of flux. College majors are for the most part an organizing function for the faculty of an institution who want to have departments for their academic disciplines.”

As I meet with university students, it feels as though most of them are in a state of flux, too. About half of freshmen students have either changed their major or plan to do so the following year. Almost all of the other half drop out. Many of those first year students simply fall through the cracks. There has to be a better way to engage them in the learning process.

A proposal is on the table at a new university in Canada that plans to do away with majors. Yep, you read that right. In their place, students will be able to “distinguish themselves via practical and demonstrable skills in four areas of focus: technology, entrepreneurship/management, health professions, and creative industries.”

They, of course, believe that colleges must be organized with structured curriculum and classes in order to take licensing exams or apply to graduate schools. Most majors, however, don’t have specific requirements. A lot can be accomplished at the undergraduate level that would be perfectly relevant to our 21st century needs AND would engage today’s student.

Moving from “Choose Your Major” to “Solve a Problem”

I like the question I’m hearing from some educational pioneers. Instead of asking college students the typical question:

What do you plan to major in?

They ask students:

What problems do you want to solve?

Every student I know (with few exceptions) would be totally intrigued by a school that provided discussions and curriculum that enabled them to solve a problem, such as finding a cure for the HIV virus, getting enough clean water to the millions who don’t have any, ending sex-trafficking, or curing cancer. Wow. Talk about getting their creative juices flowing!

May I speak forthrightly? Most high school seniors have no idea what they want to “be” when they grow up. But it’s easy to get them (and their college counterparts) to talk passionately about what they want to fix in the world. They know our world is broken, and solving a strategic problem engages them at the heart level. Can you imagine a whole new set of courses that don’t fit neatly into a “major” category?

Furthermore, imagine what it would be like if students talked about solving problems instead of completing majors:

  • “I’m learning human biology so we can eliminate hunger.”
  • “I’m learning geography and engineering to get clean water to Africa.”
  • “I’m learning computer science to enable developing nations to connect.”
  • “I’m learning political science to help people engage their local and federal governments.”

Jeff Selingo reminds us: “Stanford University recently called such a pathway, ‘purpose learning.’ As part of a yearlong design exercise to rethink undergraduate education, students suggested doing away with the major and replacing it with a ‘mission.’ The goal of the exercise was to ‘help students select a meaningful course of study while in school, and then scaffold a clear arc for the decade of their careers.’”

To take it a step further, my experience tells me a major is simply a box to check on an application anyway. Students know they must declare one, so they conform. This system continues to get perpetuated, with colleges creating all kinds of “majors” to entice students who question whether they fit into a liberal arts college. According to Jeff, “Since 2000, there has been a 20% increase in the number of majors at American colleges and universities, according to an analysis of the U.S. Education Department data. [...] The 1990s saw similar growth in the number of majors. Indeed, nearly 4 in 10 majors on today’s government list didn’t exist in 1990.”

The bottom line is this: If the point is to engage students in something relevant and equip them to meet the needs of our 21st century world, then it seems we may want to re-think the way we approach the classroom. I say we connect students to tangible problems and let the studies follow.

Let me know your thoughts. Do you have any better ideas?



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  1. Stan Harstine, Ph.D. on October 16, 2014 at 6:20 am

    Tim, I am a college professor concerned with preparing students for the future. I enjoy reading your blogs and look forward to engaging more of your material. However, I am concerned that the issue is more complex than you present it here. Here are my viewpoints 1) society, not universities, are pushing students to select a major when they start, 2) society, not universities, are pushing students to know what job they want 4 years later in their life, 3) society, not universities, are pushing universities to be a pipeline for a specific job in terms of a vocational pathway. The result is that students are not given the opportunity to actually learn and develop over those crucial years. As I seek to prepare and develop students, the major is one way, not the only way, to do so. During these years students are learning a way of thinking about the world and beginning to acquire information broad enough to let them draw conclusions. I think the future has great potential for integrating learning-and I mean learning and not teaching-but many students still have baseline learning to do and a need to learn how to think creatively for themselves. That is the joy of teaching, seeing students begin to draw connections and explore possibilties. Thanks for providing useful, statistical information, But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    • Tim Elmore on October 25, 2014 at 5:13 pm

      Thank you for your comment, Dr. Harstine. I love your heart for students and it seems you are a pioneer in education. I agree that society plays a large part in this issue, and often universities are pushed by “customers” to educate in a familiar manner. Whether a student chooses a major at the beginning or not, they eventually must choose one, in many schools. I believe adults must be intentional about helping students answer the larger question I bring up in my blog. Whether these adults are in universities, high schools, sports teams, or at home, we need some part of society to change in order to better prepare today’s students. Through this article, I just wanted to suggest that maybe the universities can push back from societal pressures. Thank you for continuing the conversation. – Tim

  2. Rob B on October 16, 2014 at 8:32 pm

    See St. Johns College Annapolis or Santa Fe.

  3. JM on October 17, 2014 at 5:58 pm

    Hi Tim, I too am a college professor and agree with Stan. Many of the students I encounter want to rush through university to “get on with my life”. This bothers me because I think students should see their time at university as part of their lives, a crucial part and important time to discover their motivations, goals and passions. I agree with Stan that it feels like society is pushing our children with great force and by the time they get to the university level they are simply burned out on learning. The result of this can be the constant changing of majors or the perception that majors themselves are unnecessary.
    I am a parent of younger children and currently in the middle of the “parental tornado” that spins with tutors to be better, private lessons to excel, how to manage the load of AP classes, etc. all with the goal of pushing our children to the next level. Having seen the other end of this at the university level, I have to ask “why”. Why are we/society not allowing our children time for reflection? I think the very best problem solving at any age is done when the mind, body and spirit can reflect and synthesize.

    • Tim Elmore on October 25, 2014 at 5:15 pm

      JM—thanks for your comments. I believe you have hit at least one of the important nails on the head—teaching kids to reflect. At one point, college was that time to reflect on life’s meaning and on where a student wanted to invest time and energy. So students (and parents) today only see it as a steppingstone to endure and get on with life. I wonder if we engage students in problem solving with important ideas—maybe they can avoid the burnout. Deep down, my experience with students has been they want to do something that is very important and almost impossible. May you and Stan and others like you influence the people in your circle of influence. –TIm

  4. Guest on October 18, 2014 at 7:54 am

    As a school administrator, I agree that society is pushing students too fast, but I disagree that colleges don’t play a role in this. Students today can not attend college and spend 2 years in general studies while they figure out their major. They have to declare a major prior to attending and get accepted into a particular college (business, pre-nursing, engineering,etc.) Because decisions have to be made so early, students often change majors multiple times, costing them, their families, and the US government (student loans) time and money as they struggle to figure out “what they want to do and be” without many real life experiences.

  5. Jason Stanland on November 17, 2014 at 2:53 pm

    I find this discussion interesting. I am a student minister in Tallahassee, and am finishing a Masters Degree. I believe that Tim raises a good question, pertaining to how should we rethink degrees and he college model. I further agree with Dr. Harstine that society most certainly does push students to declare the major quickly. I think this is most evident in the trend of community colleges moving from the AA only model to a full four year school. I think the concept of the AA is good, because it allows students the first two years to determine what path they want to do. However, there comes a point that someone must become specialized in an area.
    I do find the idea that asking a student what problem do they want to solve as intriguing, but am also concerned that it may be setting them up for disillusionment as well. Being a ministry student I have seen many students who come to seminary knowing what they want to be and what problems they want to solve, but in their naivety, they misunderstand the deeper truths of ministry. Thus, students enter a program perceiving their degree different from what reality may have in store.
    I believe a good solution to this problem is internships and volunteer hours. When a student experiences the profession in which he or she is interested, then the student becomes more aware of the career. When the student’s perspective is broadened to the scope of a lifelong career, he or she will have a better knowledge if their interest is sustainable and if the career is viable.

  6. Liudmyla Kolesnyk on December 4, 2016 at 7:47 pm

    Thank you so much, sir Tim, for your articles! I’m reading them every time with a great pleasure!
    Want to ask you: which skills do you consider for modern young generation to be crusial and necessary to develop, before even deciding their career, or before coming to a part of what problem solving they want be?

  7. Mapinme Coaching on January 27, 2017 at 8:06 pm

    In cases where careers DO NOT require a college degree, students often feel a need to earn one anyway. Besides the desire to avoid the stigmas associated with not attendig college, the idea of a structured and ordered path of learning is very appealing. We need alternatives that will guide students into career-specific preparation that will involve content instruction, internships and mentorships. Any path of career preparation MUST be preceeded by an accurate assessment of how any given student is wired for success, satisfaction, and motivation. Pursuit of a career informed by anything other than innate wiring has a high probability of not working out.

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A Crucial Question Colleges Should Ask Students