The Best Choice Might Be No Choice

Earlier today, I had a grandfather stop by the office on a reconnaissance mission for his grandson. He was here, he said, because his grandson is undecided on a major, isn’t a very goo'Students who major in these subjects have a 7% less chance of moving back in with their parents after graduation.'d student, but he needs to get started with classes this summer. “We told him,” grandpa said, “if we’re spending $100,000 on your college degree, you need to get going.”

Don’t get me wrong. I applaud grandpa’s willingness to be actively involved in his grandson’s college education, but I can’t help but wonder if little junior didn’t wish granddad had a different hobby.

I also want to know who manages his retirement portfolio if he’s got that kind of bank to spend on his grandson.

Grandpa was particularly concerned that junior doesn’t know what he wants to major in when he starts college. Like so many folks who talk about educational indecision, though, he followed his concern by telling me “Not that I knew what I wanted to do at 18.”

Neither do most college freshman, I told him. Anywhere from 20-50% of entering freshman are undecided about a career path. Close to 75% of college students change majors at some point in their college career. You can’t hit a faculty member on most college campuses who didn’t change majors at least twice.

Like grandpa at 18, most students don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. For many students, their decision about that first major is made based on peer pressure, parents’ expectations, social media, or fear of being indecisive. As importantly, high schools can’t expose students to all the possibilities that exist, and heaven help students from low income, disadvantaged schools. We know those limitations inhibit their understanding of where they can go to college and of the possible fields of study.

I don’t blame them for not knowing. Here in Texas, we’ve decided that students should choose a graduation path that forces students to choose one of five Endorsements. As 9th graders. Because we all know what great judgement 15 year olds have. These kids can’t decide how much body spray is appropriate, and we want them to decide between a STEM path or a Public Services path. In the name of efficiency, though, we want to be sure there no children left behind and there are no wasted classes. What happens, inevitably, is that students choose the endorsements that make the most sense based on the world in which they exist. Forget the tyranny of low expectations. We’re facing the an educational fascism in the name of efficiency.

Heaven forbid some student accidentally find out there’s more to heaven and earth than contained in his parent’s or his neighborhood’s philosophy.

Understand that I’m not completely against efficiency, although I think more people need to remember what it’s like to be 15 (or 18). More importantly, we also need to keep in mind that education is a messy process filled with discovery and failure. The goal of education isn’t to see who finishes the fastest.

Anyone with kids (or who’s been around kids) knows that given a chance their interests change over time. We also know that our teenage aspirations don’t always match our abilities. There’s plenty of data out there showing that college students change majors because they realize their abilities don’t match what their parents, friends, or grandparents wanted them to do with their lives. If you can’t pass College Algebra, you aren’t likely to be a doctor no matter what dad wants. By the same token, if you are a math wizard, maybe you should consider Physics, even if you’ve never met anyone with a Physics degree or mom wants you to be an English teacher. Or, as I recommended to grandpa, maybe if the thought of sitting in a classroom four hours a day sounds about as useful as a screen door on a submarine, you might consider some sort of skilled trade. Last time I checked, apprenticeships don’t cost $100,000.

Most importantly, though, I reassured grandpa that he won’t be wasting money if little junior shows up on our doorstep without a clear career path. In fact, there are some interesting data sets out there showing that students who choose a major after their first semester persist at higher rates than those who chose a major before starting college. This is particularly true at universities who treat the first year as an exploratory opportunity. The path to degree, in fact, might be more efficient if we let students take some classes to find out both what they enjoy and what they do well before we demand they pick a career. (After all, not many kids tell you they love the classes they failed.)

Taking this approach, though, would require that we stop pushing students to make decisions about what “path” they want to pursue before they’re ready. Sometimes, after all, no choice is better than any choice.

 

 

 

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Washington Monthly

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Inside Higher Ed

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Balloon Juice

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Scott Adams' Blog

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