How colleges help undecided students pick a major

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University of St. Francis students gather in a student lounge. Officials there note that they are prepared for a large number of students who are undecided about a course of study when they arrive.

Today the spiraling cost of tuition and the specter of years of indebtedness from college loans are strong incentives for students to complete an undergraduate degree in four years.

But what if they are undecided about their future career and find themselves at a crossroad when it comes to declaring a major? A detour down the wrong path can be costly in both time and money. That’s why colleges and universities are going the extra mile to connect students with a major attuned to aptitudes and interests and that will lead to a satisfying and in-demand career.

“We’ve found, and research on the national level agrees, that a third of incoming freshman are undecided on a career. And, after that first year another third who thought they knew what they wanted to major in had changed their minds,” said Chuck Beutel, vice president of admissions and enrollment services at the University of St. Francis in Joliet.

“And we tell them that’s perfectly okay,” he added. “Now they’re free to explore other options that will help them make a more informed decision.”

USF wastes no time exposing students to a wide range of services that are designed to help them make the right choice. During their first semester, freshman attend a Career Exploration Day at which faculty from all departments and alumni in related careers offer a realistic view of the challenges, training and job prospects for careers in each discipline.

During the formative first year, USF also encourages freshmen to participate in an “externship” in which they shadow someone working in their field of interest for a day. “This externship offers just a brief sampling of the work involved in a particular career while an internship occurs in the junior or senior year and is a more concentrated learning experience in the student’s major field,” said Beutel.

For example, a student who has shown an interest in radiation therapy can spend a day shadowing a professional in a hospital and, at the end of the day, have a better idea if this career is – or isn’t – right for him.

In addition, USF’s Career Development Office uses a variety of Interest and Personality Assessment Indexes to match a student to a meaningful career. “Answering these seemingly unrelated questions candidly provides a great deal of self-knowledge such as whether the individual enjoys working with other people or he is more comfortable working alone,” said Beutel. “And this information, in turn, will either confirm that he’s on the right track or point to another career that may be better suited to his personality.”

DePaul University offers similar discernment services for undeclared students at both its Loop and Lincoln Park campuses through the school’s Offices for Academic Advising Support, which were formed in 2007.

“Prior to that there was no one central location where students could go for academic advice,’’ said Lisa Davidson, director of the OAAS. “Now all they need is at one location on each campus,” said Davidson. “DePaul offers more than 100 different academic options, a wide range of choices that can be overwhelming to an undecided student. Our job is to help him understand himself, to discern his skills, values and goals, before he is able to choose a career that is compatible with these qualities.’’

The OAAS accomplishes this by talking early and often to freshman in their residence halls, in the classroom as part of the Chicago Quarter, which is a mandatory class for freshmen, at their annual Major-Minor Fair and by partnering with alumni who act as mentors.

Kendall College, founded in 1934, now offers undergraduate degrees in business, culinary arts, early childhood education and hospitality management.

“In their first conversations with prospective students our admissions counselors try to

get a feel for the things that motivate the student – his hobbies, extracurricular activities, long terms goals and what he is really passionate about. Then when the student enrolls, he is assigned an academic adviser who offers guidance all four years,” said Emily Williams Knight, president of Kendall College in Chicago.

The college requires students to complete at least two internships prior to graduating in any program. The first internship occurs during a student’s sophomore year when schedules are still flexible and courses required for a major aren’t locked in yet.

“These internships offer real day-to-day work experience that either reaffirms for the student that he is on the right career path or, even more importantly, shows him that this specialty may not be the best fit after all,” said Knight. Although a student may be in the right major, Kendall’s varied concentrations within the school’s Hospitality Management Program may require student to fine-tune their focus without needing to start over.

“A student who was enthusiastic about specializing in Meeting and Event Planning may decide that Global Tourism, Destination Management or even our new Beverage Specialty is more attuned to his interests,” Williams Knight said. And, more choices are always in the pipeline. Based on market data and input from industry leaders, Kendall has recently added a new concentration in this field, Sustainable Management in Hospitality and Tourism.

The president added that the academic advising and internship route is working. In 2011, Kendall was ranked first in Chicago for preparing students for careers in hospitality management and culinary arts in a survey of Michelin Guide restaurants and management at the city’s leading hotels.

Equally impressive is that Kendall reported that 91 percent of its June 2012 graduates found employment in their field of study within six months of graduation.

Jean Guarino is a local freelance writer.