Efforts to help high school students choose a college major actually make things worse for most students—especially the most valuable among them. It all starts with the probing, anxiety-inducing question, “What are you going to major in?” Most students just defer to a major they have heard of as they don’t know what they want to major in.
Having an idea of what to major in during high school is a good first step. It helps them take the right math classes, the right prerequisite courses, and select the school that best fits their needs. But it also adds to the pressure students feel, the guilt of not knowing, and the chances of making a regrettable decision. A recent study showed that 44% of students looking for a job after earning a college degree regret their choice of a college major.
This is especially true for today’s students, who often are unaware of the range of majors offered. And it may contribute to why nearly 1 million fewer students enrolled in college over the past two years.
Clearly there is work to be done to help both high school counselors aid future freshman in determining their interests and college counselors guiding the decisions of adult students returning to college to determine life and career goals.
Years of work built upon behavioral economics, consumer information, and innovation in the field suggest another path forward. Instead of the usual question, “What are you going to major in?,” let’s start asking, “What do you know you don’t want to do?” from a shortlist of options.
That is what I did when my daughter brought me in as a speaker in her high school leadership class, and the results were fascinating. Leveraging Florida’s meta-majors—a collection of majors grouped in “buckets” like a prix fixe menu—I asked the students to cross off six meta-majors they had no interest in pursuing.
Florida’s meta-majors, also called career pathways in other states, include:
- Analyze information (aka social and behavioral sciences)
- Build or fix things (aka industry/manufacturing and construction)
- Create culture (aka arts, humanities, communication, and design)
- Develop technology (aka science, technology, engineering, and mathematics)
- Empower others (aka education)
- Heal people or animals (aka health sciences)
- Protect others (aka public safety)
- Run a company (aka business)
I then gave them access to a website that included examples of the majors within the two remaining meta-majors to expand their understanding of what they may want to focus on. These majors had similar core courses, similar math requirements, and similar intents—reducing the pressure to pick one at that exact moment.
Perhaps as important, at that point, they also became aware of majors they never knew existed. For example, one student shared that they did not know they could leverage their skill and interest to pursue a degree in Dance Therapy.
In another example, my daughter crossed off meta-majors until she got to social and behavioral sciences. From there, we looked at specific majors like public policy and administration, addiction studies, aging services, domestic violence services, human services, and more.
This approach allows potential students to answer that dreaded question about their chosen major while also allowing them to change their minds as they learn more. Additionally, in my daughter’s case, she realized that she did not need to sweat out calculus or college algebra in high school—and that she should instead focus on taking social sciences electives, like human geography, along with statistics as her math course.
Starting with what students don’t want to be helps clarify what they want to study. This exercise removes information barriers that limit opportunities for talented low-income, minority, and first-generation students who may not have known certain majors exist.
And, hey, it can also help students from more advantaged backgrounds—like my daughter, perhaps a budding social scientist.