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Today's Anxious Freshmen Declare Majors Far Faster Than Their Elders

Ohanian Comment: The article details a huge shift in what students want from college, and exploration and experimentation seem low on the list. School deform has created student anxiety, convincing kids that they need to get into the rat race to become workers in the global economy.

Sad, yes, but let's not be too quick to put all the blame on colleges. Schools foster this student anxiety in kindergarten, taking away kids' blocks and fingerpaints and putting them on the Common Core curriculum treadmill.

And now pre-school programs brag that they are getting kids "ready" for kindergarten.

Kids learn they are never "good enough" for the global economy. The Common Core tests will prove that most of them don't measure up to the standards for global economy workers.

Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president for enrollment and marketing at DePaul, sums it up: "People don't go to college anymore to be fulfilled or to gain life perspective; they go to get a great job. There's been a shift from hippie culture to corporate culture."

The executive director of LSU's University College pushes early major declaration, saying they don't want students to be "inefficient."

Not surprisingly, Wall Street Journal readers are outraged that anyone would consider a college education as anything other than an "investment." After scoffing at the very idea of a degree in international relations or American studies, one person commented: "How about educating people to contribute to the market?"

Another wailed: "This trend is far too late to help me. I majored in Geography and had to move back home for 5 years because apparently employers aren't too hot for Geography majors. If only I had known I was getting a useless degree."

One commenter did say: "College education is about more than vocational training," but many were outraged by the picture accompanying the article showing a college tap dancing class. Of course I come from an era that did not demand a return on investment from a college education.

I wish I'd taken a tap dancing class in college.

By Douglas Belkin

For decades, many American teenagers went to college to find themselves and then look for a career. Post-recession, more are launching the job search from day one.

Instead of spending their first couple of years dipping into a range of intellectual pools, the class of 2018 was much more likely to declare an academic major during freshman year than their counterparts before the recession, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of data from a dozen randomly chosen colleges nationwide, both large and small.

At Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., 13% of first-year students were undeclared this year, down from 31% in 2006-07. At DePaul University in Chicago, the percentage fell to 16% from 31% during the past seven years. At the University of Denver, undeclared freshmen declined to 6% from 33% in 1995-96. Most of the other colleges examined showed a similar trend, though less pronounced.

The shift is being driven by pragmatism, cost and a stubbornly soft job market for college graduates, said academics and university administrators. The average debt load for the class of 2014 was $33,050, up from $21,975 in 2007 in inflation-adjusted dollars, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

In 2012, nearly half of college graduates between the ages of 22 and 27 were unemployed or had jobs that didn't use their degrees, said a 2014 paper by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Those economic realities have prompted many students and their families to reconsider what was once the backbone of higher education: intellectual exploration for its own sake.

"People don't go to college anymore to be fulfilled or to gain life perspective; they go to get a great job," said Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president for enrollment and marketing at DePaul. "There's been a shift from hippie culture to corporate culture."

Between 2002 and 2012, the majors at four-year schools that saw the fastest rate of growth were in decidedly practical disciplines, according the National Center for Education Statistics: the health professions, homeland security, law enforcement and firefighting. The social sciences and history lost ground.

That trend reflects the values of students facing greater financial pressure. A national survey of freshmen by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles shows that students have grown consistently more concerned with their return on investment. In 2014, 45% of freshmen surveyed said an essential or very important objective of college was to develop a meaningful life philosophy; in 1971--the first year the survey was taken--it was 73%.

Conversely, 82% of today's freshmen said college was essential to being very well off financially, up from 73% in 2006--and 37% in 1971.

Students who choose a major during freshman year are likely to switch, a course correction that can slow the time to graduation and increase the likelihood of dropping out, said David Spight, the assistant dean for academic advising and career counseling at the School for Undergraduate Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Mr. Spight's advice for first-year students: Don't rush into a course of study the day you arrive on campus. "How do you know that you don't want to major in say, anthropology, if you've never taken an anthropology class?" he asked.

Meghan Wallace, a sophomore at Rollins who didn't declare a major her freshman year, said she felt a little lost when talking to her classmates, "who seemed much more directed." She said she decided to major in international relations this year after a trip to Nepal--and is glad she waited.

Many schools don't allow students to declare a major before their sophomore year, but more are building career preparation into the curriculum from day one. President Barack Obama's pledge to create a college scorecard that tracks outcomes such as graduation and employment rates has accelerated these efforts.

More college career offices are now reaching out to first-year students. At the Center for Freshman Year at Louisiana State University, the goal is to get students to declare a major by the end of their third semester.

"We are more proactive than we were 10 year ago" in getting students to focus on a career, said Paul Ivey, executive director of LSU's University College, which educates most freshmen. "We want them to make an intelligent choice that they are comfortable with, but thereΓΆ€™s a timeline--we don't want them to be inefficient."

That sense of purpose can translate into urgency even at schools designed to encourage exploration. At Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., where undeclared freshmen fell to 14% this academic year from 34% in 2007-08, Zack Bauer said he felt the pressure almost as soon as he walked onto campus.

"It's not overt. No one is saying you have to pick a major immediately--it's more like a silent pressure," Mr. Bauer said. "Pretty much everyone here knew what they wanted to study before they got here."

Write to Douglas Belkin at doug.belkin@wsj.com

— Douglas Belkin with Ohanian comment
Wall Street Journal





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