While much of the learning done in college is valuable, a significant proportion of students don’t actually use their undergraduate degree in their future career. Even though a college education is a useful experience with regard to diversity of thought and academic rigor, students would be much better off if they were permitted to explore areas of interest without the pressure of needing to fit in units or prerequisites.
At 18 years old, the human brain is not fully developed. Until the prefrontal cortex develops by around age 25, the logical decision-making part of the brain has technically not entirely matured. Asking students fresh out of high school to make decisions that impact the next four years of their life (and possibly longer) is not only daunting — it’s scientifically impractical.
The concept of college majors itself is outdated. Prerequisites, co-requisites, lower-division requirements and upper-division classes make it difficult to switch into programs or change concentrations of study. Some more rigorous programs offer little to no room for electives to explore other areas of study, and with students trying to save money and graduate in four years, they often prioritize and cram in required classes.
All of this is not to say that there aren’t exceptions. Some more technically-advanced classes inevitably require additional coursework to prepare and be successful. However, by setting a precedent of exploration and an attitude of open-mindedness, there is no reason that universities shouldn’t encourage and make it easier for students to step out of their comfort zone.
Some students have known exactly what field or profession they’d like to pursue since an early age or applied to a university to concentrate in a specific field. Still, undergraduate education should offer a chance for them to explore other areas of study outside of their own expertise.
While a university’s general education courses, or GEs, are a surefire way to make sure that even the most STEM-y of majors get a good dose of the humanities, students are often limited by course category and scheduling conflicts and may end up in classes they aren’t necessarily interested in. Students are simply more engaged in learning when it’s about a topic they find fascinating –– or, unlike those pesky lower-division math requirements, something that is taught in a way relevant to their interests.
Some schools have already recognized how arbitrary and old-fashioned the current system is. Brown University’s Open Curriculum program allows students to complete their core course requirements and essentially build their own course of study. With more than 80 “concentration” offerings, Brown allows students the flexibility to build their own curriculum and work closely with academic advisers to craft a course plan that aligns with their specific interests and areas of study.
By enabling students to actively participate in their own education, choosing specific concentration classes and synthesizing an academic experience from a wide range of academia, Brown has created an unmatched atmosphere of academic customization and support. Additionally, the unique grading scale at Brown doesn’t take failed classes into account or calculate GPA, encouraging students to pursue their academic curiosity without the deterrent of a bad grade.
With prestigious schools such as Stanford, Claremont McKenna and the University of Chicago setting the deadline to commit to a major well into a student’s college journey, it’s clear that the traditional method of entering college having declared and committed to a major of study is on its way out. By giving students more time to dabble in many areas of study before deciding which they’d like to pursue in depth, colleges have the potential to create an entirely new and more sustainable learning environment.
While USC does have the little-advertised option of building one’s own major, having the ability to more freely customize classes and course loads to tailor to one’s unique interests would be more beneficial for all students. The Dornsife Interdisciplinary Major Program allows students to design their own area of study, developing a “thematic curriculum” and an independent research project. However, entrance to this program is extremely competitive, with GPA requirements, a tentative thesis proposal and writing supplements.
The University does encourage students to pursue multiple areas of academic study, incentivizing such accomplishments with recognitions like the Renaissance Award. However, adopting a culture of exploration and curiosity over the current achievement-driven mindset is key.
By encouraging all students to test the waters from the start, colleges have started capitalizing on the opportunity to create engaging and customizable learning experiences without necessarily locking a student into a single course of study that leads to a specific job.
People are constantly developing and changing as they age, finding new hobbies, interests and ideas. While there may be no perfect-fit major for any college student, allowing increased leniency and flexibility in course plans and areas of study would create more well-rounded, well-adjusted and passionate students who are better equipped to succeed after graduation.