It’s time to normalize the idea of students being undecided in college. That’s how Dr. Vincent Tinto started his keynote address at the University of Pittsburgh’s 2023 Mentoring and Advising Summit. Joining him as a moderator of the session was WGU Labs’ Director of Learning Innovation, Dr. Omid Fotuhi, Director of Learning Innovation.
Dr. Tinto explained how many students enter college not knowing who they are, let alone which career they want to pursue. According to Dr. Tinto, there should be more ways for first-year college students to discover and decide on the right path. Strategies include:
1. Adopt Meta-majors
One of the first strategies Dr. Tinto discussed was meta-majors. By clustering programs, students can declare an area or field of interest, without picking a specific major initially. For example, a business meta-major might include introductory courses in accounting, fashion and merchandising, and natural resource economics and policy. An advantage of meta-majors, said Dr. Tinto, is that students have more freedom to explore a variety of courses in a given area to find what best matches their interests. The idea is already growing across higher education. Institutions including Rio Salado College, the University System of Georgia, the University of Houston, and Virginia Tech, among others, have all recently adopted meta-majors.
2. Make Internships Accessible
Internships have long been a way for inexperienced young people to dip their toes into a particular career path. But fewer students are taking internships than in previous years — with the majority (59.4%) saying they don’t know how to find opportunities. Dr. Tinto talked about the ways internships give students, especially those in their first year, something young people are missing: 1) on-the-job skills; 2) exposure to job-specific experience; and 3) valuable network connections. Offering internships as a part of first-year experiences can be a way for students to easily find opportunities, explore their options, and earn transferable skills.
3. Encourage Reflection
Reflective journaling is already being used in courses to enhance learning. The same kind of introspection can help students understand it's OK to be undecided. Prompting students to reflect on their decision-making process gives equal meaning to the journey as well as the destination, Dr. Tinto explained. He encourages higher education leaders to include reflective exercises not only for first-year students but also throughout the college experience. He went further to suggest that more institutions require students to write an essay in their final year of college about what they’ve learned and how they discovered what they want to do. Dr. Tinto’s strategy also includes confidentially sharing the diaries, after receiving permission from the authors, with students entering college. Younger students can learn from the students who preceded them, and institutions can expand the impact of these exercises.
4. Become an Exploratory Institution
Dr. Tinto noted that the strategies above aren’t the only ways to support student pathways to a profession. The tricky part is that the other ways are unknown — for now. To find new ways to support students, Dr. Tinto recommends going to the source. He encourages leaders to seek out the voices of students, particularly the voices of underserved and low-income students. “See the institutions through their eyes, hear their voices, and learn what they (say) about their attempts to discover (their path),” said Dr. Tinto. Doing so can surface new ideas that are inspired directly by students.
Normalizing being undecided in college can improve the overall experience for students. Students won’t feel pressure to make a decision for which they aren’t ready. Plus, it can help improve persistence by increasing students’ sense of belonging. But according to Dr. Tinto, one of the biggest advantages of reducing the stigma of being undecided is it gives students a sense of purpose. In turn, students will be more motivated to graduate because they’ll be invested in what they are learning. By adopting the strategies above, higher education institutions can better support students and personalize their path to a profession with personal meaning.