There’s a label used in the college admissions process that ought to be changed. Students who cannot easily check the box indicating their intended major find themselves scrolling down to a last choice, variously called “Undecided” or “Undeclared.” This is the “limbo” category for those who have yet to proclaim their educational focus for the upcoming four years, a category that is often seen as a negative, and worrisome to friends and family. But here’s the secret—it’s really the best box to check.
Across the country, many colleges are developing new programs to embrace this group of applicants. Since it is most probably the largest population of incoming students, the “undecided” can’t be ignored. They are called, “open” majors, “explorers,” and other variations.
My own college aspirations leaned toward the sciences—in those days we all had been pushed in that direction by the race to catch up with Sputnik and orbiting monkeys. I held the absolute expectation of becoming a scientist. So, when it was time to fill out the applications, I checked the biology box without a second’s hesitation. But that was before I walked into “general education” courses, the “electives” that were meant to complement my studies. Those other courses that I was forced to take suddenly revealed a myriad of intriguing pursuits.
By the end of the first term, I was second guessing my major decision. Four years later I graduated with a degree in English with minors in philosophy, history and Spanish, and one course shy of that biology major. My graduate studies and my career went in a different direction still; I went on to run companies, work in the motion picture industry (with some Oscar winners) and eventually returned to academia.
Not that having a specific educational destination is bad. It’s just that the journey ahead may have lots of unexpected twists and turns. Sometimes, where we are heading actually may not be where we want to go. Most college students change their major three times and about 80% change their major at least once. Some find a passionate commitment to a specific subject easily and early. But for many of us, the condition is not one of being undecided about a major, it’s a process of exploration and discovery with many decisions along the way.
There certainly is a secure feeling in knowing what steps will lead to a predictable and desired future. And with the challenge of college affordability, the pressure to have a concrete career goal at the beginning of the journey is a compelling expectation. But with the evolution and, sometimes, revolution of our personal experiences, it may be that the uncertainty of exploration is not as frightening as it can be exhilarating.
I applaud those who have a lock on their future. As a parent I completely understand the desire for certainty in the future for your children. But I also know that only they will make that future and hope they will approach it with an open, adaptable and adventurous mind.
The “undecided”—make that, the “deciding”—are in the best position to find their way in a world that is ever changing. Colleges need to work on continuing to change that “undecided” label and, in the meantime, I suggest we celebrate it as a natural path to educational, professional and life fulfillment.