By Kristina Goetz
The Cincinnati Enquirer
If "undecided" were a college major, it would be the most popular field of study in the Tristate.
Last year, incoming college freshmen checked the "undeclared" box more often than any major, mirroring choices made by more than 8 percent of their national counterparts. And admissions officials anticipate just as much indecision this fall.
As first-time college students prepare for move-in day on Greater Cincinnati campuses next week, talk naturally turns to what career paths these young adults will choose.
With the burgeoning cost of higher education - coupled with the extra time students take to complete their degrees these days - the pressure to choose a major and stick to it is building.
Dave Sheeran, 18, of Loveland is feeling some pressure. He's headed to the University of Cincinnati and will be among the undeclared.
"I have no clue," the Purcell Marian graduate said. "I'm planning on going my first two years undecided, and I'm hoping I'll have a good idea after that.
"My friends are pretty casual about it because they're in the same boat," he said, but he's feeling some pressure from his parents to make a career choice.
In Ohio, state funding cuts have pushed more of the tuition burden on students and their families.
In the past five years, the average tuition cost for Ohio's 13 public universities has increased by nearly 42 percent - at a time when completing a bachelor's degree takes 4.3 years, the median.
Those factors have sparked a renewed focus among administrators to implement tailored programs to help students decide what they want to do.
"With the cost of higher education growing so rapidly, it's really important that students find themselves in a situation where they're not wasting their time," says Tony Perzigian, senior vice president and provost at University of Cincinnati. "It's important to help students not lose valuable time and money."
COLLEGE START DATES
Thomas More College
Northern Kentucky University
College of Mount St. Joseph
University of Dayton
University of Kentucky
Aug. 30 for students who take Saturday classes. All others start Sept. 2
Cincinnati State Technical and Community College
University of Cincinnati
Ohio State University
While being undeclared isn't always a bad choice initially, educators say the longer students remain undecided, the greater the risk that they'll take longer to graduate or even drop out.
"It's a commonly held understanding that if a student stays undeclared for an extended period of time or changes majors multiple times, the likelihood of graduation or persisting with their education is not as high," says Tara Stopfel, director of UC's newest effort to help undecided students, called the Center for Exploratory Studies.
Administrators began to focus on this group as a way to boost retention in the 1980s, says Virginia Gordon, emeritus professor at Ohio State University.
A pivotal moment underscored the issue in 1994 when the National Academic Advising Association established its commission on undecided students, which called for tailored programs to serve this population.
In 2002, a survey conducted by the Los Angeles-based Higher Education Research Institute showed that 8.4 percent of the nation's college freshmen were undecided, up from 1.7 percent in 1966.
Today, against a backdrop of a sluggish economy, the perennial predicament has been highlighted again. This time, experts say, the stakes are higher than ever.
What the numbers show
There are no statistics to document the precise number of undecided freshmen, but some experts estimate the number at 25 percent or more of the nation's incoming freshmen.
Studies show that between 60 percent and 75 percent of college students who begin their studies in declared majors change their minds at least once before they graduate.
That's because those students are undecided, but often pick a major based on pressure from peers or parents.
"It's unrealistic to think all 18-year-olds can decide what they want to do,'' says Betsy Barefoot, co-director of the Policy Center on the First Year of College in Brevard, N.C. "But colleges and universities are taking greater responsibility in helping students make those decisions."
Some public institutions are under pressure to decrease the time-to-degree completion rates, which factors into national ranking.
"For most college students, the four-year degree is a myth," says Dave Emery, director of Northern Kentucky University's academic advising resource center.
Others schools are concerned about retention rates. Many see the sharp focus on undeclared students as a strategy to reduce the long-term costs a student pays for a college education.
Local colleges respond
At UC, this year's freshmen can seek specialized help from the Center for Exploratory Studies.
It combines advising with peer mentoring, alumni shadowing and a new course offering called Discovering UC. The two-credit course, which allows students to learn about fields across curriculums, will be offered in the winter quarter.
This fall will be the first time the services will be available to incoming freshmen.
It has already made a difference for students like Tanya Del Valle, 27, now a junior communications major. She started out as an elementary education major but quickly realized it wasn't for her.
"The center expanded my options by suggesting a communication degree instead of a business degree in marketing for my desired job field," says Del Valle of Montgomery.
"The result is two less quarters and a degree that fits more closely my desired occupation," she said.
In Highland Heights, NKU has offered initiatives in recent years to reach undeclared students. New intervention programs, including a peer advising initiative, have made a difference, Emery says. For example, those who participate in classes such as University 101 have higher grade-point averages and retention rates.
Private schools aren't immune.
At Thomas More College, a Catholic school of 1,400 students in Crestview Hills, officials have required a freshman seminar class since 2001. All freshmen are in a class three days a week with their advisers. The class helps acclimate them to the campus and its services. Since it was made mandatory, undeclared freshmen dropped 38 percent, from 141 to 87, or 38 percent.
At the College of Mount St. Joseph, undeclared majors are assigned an adviser to help them discover new interests and career paths. Undeclared freshmen and sophomores may also take a one-credit course on career exploration.
When classes start Aug. 25, the Mount will introduce a revised core curriculum in liberal arts and sciences that school officials say will not only help students develop liberal arts skills but introduce them to multiple disciplines and experience in various fields.
Officials say the approach works because more than 50 percent of the Mount's freshmen graduate in four years.
Tips for choosing a major
Always take at least one class that you're really interested in. Don't just stick to required courses.
Do some career and academic exploration and find out about your interests, skills and abilities.
Use campus resources specially designed to help you choose a major.
Work with an academic adviser to make sure you stay on track.
It's better to take some time to explore your options and choose well rather than pick a major quickly.
Encourage your student to try something that she or he really likes, not just what's practical.
Be supportive of your child and respect their ideas.
Encourage them to use campus resources designed to help undecided students.
Don't pressure your student to make a quick decision. The process may take a year.
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