Some students have always known what they wanted to pursue as a profession. When asked what they want to be when they grow up, their answer is the same at 20 as it was at five. They’ve worked toward one goal for as long as they can remember, and they’ve always known which degree to earn.
But increasingly, these students are becoming the exception rather than the rule. In 2009, the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) found that undecided and exploratory students make up 20-50% of an incoming class of students. Three-fourths of students are uncertain about their chosen major, and 65-70% of students change majors at least once.
Changing majors can not only be frustrating for students, it can also lead to increased college costs. Changing majors often means additional coursework, perhaps adding semesters or years onto a college career, and can mean transferring to a different school altogether if a campus no longer meets a student’s needs. It can turn a four-year plan into a five-year plan, costing thousands more in tuition and fees, and extending time before seeing a return on investment.
Still, students find themselves under a lot of pressure to decide which career path they will take, or which major they will choose, before they ever set foot on a physical or virtual campus. At Oregon State University, though, undecided and exploring students – both campus-based and online – are welcomed, and placed in a special program designed just for them, the University Exploratory Studies Program, or UESP.
Kerry Kincanon, head advisor of the UESP, has worked with undecided and exploring students for several years and said major exploration has not always been so accepted or encouraged. In the 1970s, Oregon State’s undecided students worked with therapists through the university’s psychological services office because no one really knew where else to put them.
“The idea really grew in the mid-1990s,” he said. “That’s when you saw the trend in welcoming major exploration, particularly in public schools.”
In 2002, the UESP was placed under the umbrella of academic affairs rather than counseling. When the university’s Academic Success Center was created in 2004, the UESP joined that department, based on the idea that major exploration and student confidence led to successful undergraduate experiences.
As the university’s Ecampus grew, administrators saw the need for extending exploratory advising services to online students, and in 2009, the UESP officially began working with the students who had likely never set foot on Oregon State’s campus. The Ecampus currently offers 15 undergraduate degree programs in a variety of fields. Its computer science, environmental economics, German, and sociology programs have all been launched within the past few months.
For campus-based and Ecampus students, the UESP program procedure varies slightly, but the goal is the same.
“We tell (undecided) students to take their time, gather information about themselves, get lots of voices in the conversation, and make an informed decision,” Kincanon said.
Ecampus students begin their enrollment process by first speaking with a pre-admissions advisor like Urjita Parekh, who will not only walk students through the admissions process but will discuss options for majors from the beginning. Students will get in touch with an Ecampus representative either online or over the phone, and will discuss their prior educational experiences as well as their career and academic goals. Students who are unsure of career goals will likely be referred to a career counselor. Students who are interested in several degree programs will likely be referred to the UESP.
The goal is always finding the best path for the student, said Lisa Templeton, executive director of the Ecampus. She said there are approximately 20 Ecampus students currently enrolled in the UESP program. As the Ecampus continues to grow, so too will UESP’s involvement.
As 80% of online students are 25 years old or older, many students already know what they want to study when they enroll, so fewer online students are undecided when compared to their on-campus peers.
Ecampus students who are undecided and placed in the UESP frequently fall into one of three categories. Some are trying to decide between a few very similar majors—the university’s undergraduate programs in Environmental Sciences, Fisheries and Wildlife Science, and Natural Resources are fairly similar, for example. Some students don’t necessarily care which degree they get as long as they earn one, for career purposes, so they explore options to find what field interests them most. Others are genuinely torn on what they would like to pursue.
“I recently worked with a student who liked science, sociology, psychology, and design,” Parekh said. “She was the ideal candidate for UESP.”
Once enrolled in the UESP program, Ecampus students work with Kincanon or one other UESP advisor solely dedicated to working with Ecampus students.
Students in the program will often take core courses required for all majors, along with introductory courses in the field or fields they are considering. They are encouraged, but not required, to take a course in career decision making, which is designed to help students assess their interests, strengths, weaknesses, and goals. Students are required to meet with their advisors via phone, email, or Skype for at least 30 minutes per quarter.
“While they’re with us, we’re going to check in fairly frequently,” Kincanon said. “They’re not going to fall through the cracks. We’ll ask them how their exploration is going, if they have any thoughts on choosing a major. We engage them to figure out their thoughts and try to determine a fit for them. We get beyond, ‘Go register,’ and try to be more about their assessment and experience.”
While there is no real limit on how long students are allowed to be considered exploratory or undecided, students can only take so many courses before they get into “majors only” coursework, and students cannot graduate as an undecided major. Students who remain undecided for a long period of time may consider the Ecampus liberal studies program, which allows students to pick and choose their own courses to an extent, after developing an in-depth plan for themselves.
On average, Kincanon said, on-campus students spend about one year in the UESP program before deciding on a major. UESP’s work with Ecampus students is still in its early stages, which makes it difficult to determine how long the average online student takes to decide, he said.
Kincanon’s experience reflects research from NACADA, which found students who begin their college careers as undecided majors are unlikely to change their major once they have explored their options and decided on a major.
“Once students make an informed decision about the best fit for them, once students find their major, they usually stick with it,” he said. “That’s a good way to gauge success. Success is when students connect with something they like.”