Changing majors is adding time and tuition to the high cost of college

Dec 8, 2018 by

Despite the spiraling cost of the investment, some students commit to it without a plan

Eventually she declared a major in psychology and a minor in art. After a year of psych classes, however, she decided “it wasn’t for me.” Plus, she wanted to make sure she’d have a good job when she was finished, since she’ll have $50,000 worth of student loans to repay. So after almost two full years in school, she switched her major to accounting.

Crowley didn’t need an accounting degree to tell her she was far enough behind her fellow majors that she was unlikely to graduate on time.

“I was scared that I was going to have to do another year and maybe take out another loan,” she said. “It is definitely a financial burden.”

Only through an exhausting regimen of night school, on top of a heavy schedule of six daytime courses per semester, has the daughter of a single mother managed to avoid the extra time and tuition it would have taken to stay in school for more than four years.

She’s among the lucky ones. Although almost none of them expect to, nearly six in 10 students in pursuit of bachelor’s degrees do take longer than four years to graduate, even further increasing that financial burden, and forestalling the careers they often need to pay for it.

The sobering reality is that some commit to the massive investment in a higher education without actually knowing what they want to learn.

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There’s no reliable source of information about how many students arrive at college without a major; one national survey of freshmen found that about 9 percent were undecided.

After they’ve picked a major, a third change their minds at least once, the U.S. Department of Education says, and one in 10 switches majors two or more times.

“I’ve met a lot of people who say, ‘I want to declare my major as this, but I’m not too sure,’” said Crowley, who met prospective freshmen while giving tours of the National Register of Historic Places-listed campus, which mixes French Gothic with Italian Romanesque architecture and includes a chapel modeled on the 13th-century Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.

As parents and high school counselors push students into college — including a growing number who are the first in their families to go — “many more now than was true in the past come without being absolutely certain what they want to do,” said Chestnut Hill President Carol Jean Vale. “There are so many options open to them, so many things that they’re interested in, that settling on one thing can be very difficult.”

Colleges have traditionally not stepped in forcefully to help with this, other than by setting deadlines — typically the end of sophomore year — for students to declare majors.

“Somehow the message was given, it’s all right to do this. It’s all right to take longer,” Vale said. “Well it’s not all right. It’s not all right. It’s just too costly.”

So Chestnut Hill began a voluntary program this semester to help its students speed things up, using weekly visits with advisors to narrow down potential majors.

“There needs to be some gentle, kind reality therapy” to steer these students to their passions, Vale said.

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Three students from a freshman class of 166 signed up this fall for the small Catholic liberal-arts institution’s new Academic Discovery Program, which is voluntary; two had declared majors within 10 weeks.

It’s a very, very small dent in a little-noticed national problem with huge consequences.

Nine out of 10 incoming freshmen think they’ll graduate with a bachelor’s degree in four years or less, according to an annual national survey conducted by a research institute at UCLA. But the U.S. Department of Education reports that only 41 percent of them do. The average student takes 4.4 years to earn a bachelor’s degree from a research university and 4.8 years from all other kinds of institutions, the advocacy group Complete College America says.

Changing majors is a huge contributor to this. It means many students end up taking courses they don’t need, then scurrying to complete the ones they do. The result is that bachelor’s degree recipients take and pay for 15 credits, on average — an entire semester — more than they need, according to Complete College America. Some give up altogether.

Because she took the required courses for both the major that she dropped and the one she added, for example, Crowley expects to finish in the spring with 15 excess credits.

As more and more students, parents and state legislators learn that college may take more time and tuition than they thought, institutions are turning their attention to this.

“There are institutional measures that we have from the federal government, from the state, from our board of directors. They’re going to look at a dashboard and want to say, ‘How are we doing?’ One of those measures of effectiveness is your four-year graduation rate,” said Kevin Hearn, vice president of enrollment management at Chestnut Hill, which costs about $58,000 a year in tuition, fees, room, board, books and other expenses.

continue: Changing majors is adding time and tuition to the high cost of college

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