The Value of Sticking with a Major and Completing Your Degree

Majors play two important roles in every college career. First, your major offers you a clear course of study. Second, if you choose wisely, you'll remain excited about your classes.

Students who don't choose wisely risk spending several years hopping from major to major, or they don't end up completing a degree. It's no wonder then that some students have trouble finalizing their decision as they worry about making the right choice.

"The obvious danger is in falling behind," says Jack Trammell. He is a professor who teaches in the honors program and sociology department at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia. "But really, I'm such a firm believer in the multidisciplinary approach to education that I don't see any other significant danger [in switching majors]."

Danielle Hendrickson, a senior at Carroll College in Wisconsin, has had three very different majors in less than four years. As a freshman, the always-athletic daughter of a teacher decided to focus on physical education.

"Then I started to realize physical education was not for me," she says. "Near the end of my freshman year, I decided to switch to business." After enrolling in some classes, Hendrickson found that business wasn't something she wanted to pursue after college. "Finally, while entering into my junior year of college, I realized that graphic design was my calling," she says.

By changing her choice of major, Hendrickson now has to work even harder to graduate with her class. "Luckily there's such a thing as summer school and winter term," she says. "I've enrolled in every winter term and have taken numerous summer classes to graduate on time."

Callie Runestad is a senior at Winona State University in Minnesota. She began college focusing on elementary education, knowing she could always succeed as a teacher.

"Then in my junior year I thought of changing my major to psychology, sociology and social work." She finally decided on a combined major in communication arts and English literature.

"[Finalizing a major] was difficult at first and took me two years to figure out," Runestad says. "This caused me to have two more years of school rather than one, but it was worth it."

Each school has its own restrictions on changing majors. Some do allow students to switch majors even if it adds an extra year or two of study, but not all.

Carol Cohen is assistant dean of the college and associate counselor for the alumni college advising program at Brown University. She says, "At Brown, for instance, the ethic is you can switch as long as it's still possible for you to fit in the coursework within four years, because our policy does not allow for students to make late-in-the-game switches, and then add on extra time."

Extra classes or years of college always mean extra tuition, which can add up quickly. Not all parents are willing, or able, to foot the bill.

As a parent, Trammell says that adding a semester or two "would definitely hurt financially, but I would still support my kids in finding their way."

Some students aren't as lucky -- they may find themselves having to fund a fifth or sixth year of college without their parents' financial help. In such cases, some continue on, some become part-time students. Others leave college with plenty of credit hours completed and money spent, but no degree to show for it.

"In general, when you're working towards a four-year undergraduate degree, there's a logical, reasonable time at which you have to say, 'OK. This is what I'm going for,'" says Cohen.

At crunch time, she advises students at Brown University who are still unsure to review their current credits with their advisors, and assess which major they're closest to. They should then make that their major, and take whatever classes are needed to complete the program, no matter what it is.

Since the credits they've acquired will be from earlier choices, the matching major will still relate to their interests, even if it doesn't fit perfectly with their current preferences.

Cohen cautions students not to think that their major determines their personality, or the rest of their career. It's important to recognize that it is really only professions like medicine that need specialized study. The core curriculum of most schools should serve you well in whatever occupation you choose.

Most employers are looking for a four-year degree of any type, proving that employees had the wherewithal to complete a challenging course of study. After all, graduates come away with a bachelor of arts, or a bachelor of science degree, not a bachelor in history or economics.

"People get very hung up on 'I'm supposed to find my passion,'" Cohen says. "That's great if you do. If not, certainly that college degree and the battery of skills that you should have by the time you leave college is really what is going to be compelling to an employer or even to a graduate program."

She adds, "[Your final major] may not be perfect. I've seen students graduate and say, 'If I had to do it all over again I would go back and do religious studies. But as it is I ended up with psych, so I finished in psych and that's fine.'"

Just ask several successful people you know what they majored in when they were in college. You might be surprised by how many wound up working in unrelated fields, in careers that interest them and suit them very well.