Limitless choice doesn’t mean effortless decisions

Compared to any other point in history, prospective students today have more access to information that will help them make decisions about college. A question like, “Which college is right for me?” at one time might have been decided by comparing a student’s academic and financial standing alongside some basic, qualitative intangibles—like how a student “feels” about an institution, and the kind of overall experience they expect to have, should they enroll.

But in our modern era of Google and Siri, most institutions provide an advanced level of marketing content and information, ripe for the search engine pickin’, to best influence inform a student’s decision. An institution’s website might have YouTube videos, profiles and content galore, representing current students and alumni alike, to help a prospect more easily envision themselves as a (insert mascot here). Institutions also boast a plethora of metrics, ranging from the graduation rates of their accepted students and median salaries of their alumni to student-to-faculty ratios and percentage of diversity within their student population, all of which is available for any prospect to consume. Students can potentially extrapolate these data points into a meaningful narrative that then enables them to define the institution better (in their own minds, anyway).

While going to college was once perceived as an initiation into the instant hireability club, with the official degree serving as the secret handshake that gets you access into nearly any career field (save perhaps for something as highly specialized as medicine or academia), students are now savvy enough to know that, while a college degree does get your foot in a lot of doors, it’s not a magic potion that makes you automatically desirable, or even eligible, for whichever job you might want. As a result, students today need to be discerning about the major they pursue. Whatever they “get their degree in” merely serves as a stepping stone to lead them closer to a career or outcome.

Opportunism is a natural human trait, perhaps a survival instinct, so it’s no surprise that students seek the path that is opportunistically the best—meaning the most direct, the quickest or the easiest. A student may research on the internet (in most cases, on a school’s .edu site) or rely on the advice of counselors and other knowledgeable “grown-ups” to figure out which majors are suited for the career they inevitably want to end up in. The good news is, one stepping stone can actually lead to multiple careers, and multiple stepping stones will lead back to one single career (I talk more about this concept, sans the stepping stone metaphor, in this post). However, because students are on a quest for the best path (which is, remember: straight, quick or easy), they may find themselves somewhat overwhelmed with all the options presented to them.

While the stepping stone metaphor sounds nice and light, choosing a college major is clearly not such an easy-breezy, blithe decision. Students are trying to make one of the biggest decisions of their life. They’re trying to set themselves up for an unknown future, which may well hinge on the major they choose. So it’s easy to see how an abundance of choice can be paralyzing for students at big universities with hundreds of academic offerings. The numbers alone can be staggering—in the eyes of the student, each major represents a path toward that unknown future. This may explain why, according to this post, an estimated 20 to 50 percent of students enter college as “undecided.” They’ve deferred the inconvenience (or responsibility) of making such a crucial decision until later in their college timeline.

But indecisive students won’t find solace by looking at a smaller, liberal-arts college either. While these types of institutions generally offer fewer academic programs than their nearby state university, they’ve become quite adroit at presenting the various ways their small number of majors will lead students to a big number of career or post-graduate opportunities. Of course, this is not only honest to do so, but absolutely prudent if you’re a smaller liberal arts college. Yet painting too broad a picture about where academic offerings can lead students will still leave them fatigued from indecision.

As wisely stated by the author in this blog, students want options but not so many. If you’re a large university with a large number of majors, this doesn’t necessarily mean pairing down your list of majors. The depth and breadth of options is a good thing, so long as students know how to navigate them. Provide specificity when talking about associated careers for those majors. Have your student and alumni profiles give prospects a clear indication about who might succeed by pursuing that major. And your abstracts should enable students to compare majors, and discern which are most inline with their goals.

If you’re a small, liberal-arts college, be inspirational but realistic about where your majors can lead students. Make sure students recognize that a single major doesn’t limit them to a single career choice while still being direct and frank about which potential careers will be available to them. Your student and alumni profiles should reinforce and support the various outcomes you’re associating with your majors. And you’ll want your abstracts to accurately describe the type of course work and learning involved with that major.

Students want choices. They want to be empowered to make decisions and choose paths that will lead them to a desired outcome. But an attempt to be too accommodating, or too broad, or too ambiguous with how you present your academic offerings for fear of discouraging a student from considering your institution, may leave them burdened by the abundance of your offered choices, not inspired by them.

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Kirk Donlan

Kirk is a Writer at RHB and the Engagement Specialist for The Major Key.