Tuesday, September 28, 2010


The Everything Else Major

You major in criminal justice because you want to work in law enforcement. You major in Nursing because you want to be a nurse. You major in business because you think that’s how you get a job in business. You major in liberal arts because...?

The liberal arts major is actually the highest-enrollment major on my campus, even though it’s probably the least well-defined. Broadly speaking, it attracts the type A students who intend to transfer to the better four-year colleges en route to professional careers, and the type C students who take it for lack of any better ideas. It’s the home of most of our Honors students, and it’s simultaneously the default major for students who don’t know what they want. It’s the program for the purists, and it’s the program for the folks who just want to get their gen eds out of the way, as they inevitably put it.

It’s structured like the classic Chinese menu, with generous helpings of electives in various disciplines. Beyond a few basic requirements -- the composition sequence, notably -- students can fulfill most of it with choices from within categories. You can take multiple philosophy classes or none at all; you can build a mini-major in psychology or avoid it altogether.

The transfer advisers try to steer students who have particular destination schools in mind towards the electives that those schools prefer. For example, certain schools have a foreign language requirement, and others won’t look at any math “below” calculus. Some will take any lab science, but others won’t take science for non-majors.

All that freedom, or vagueness, can make the major difficult to explain and difficult to assess. The two go together.

Given the program’s open-endedness, it can be a hard sell to first-generation students. Yes, it keeps options open, but first generation students as a group don’t exactly crave uncertainty. It works well for transfer, but if just sticking around for two years is daunting, that may or may not seem terribly relevant.

When the program is chock-full of electives, and built largely for transfer, how do you know if it’s succeeding? Yes, we can measure transfer rates, and sometimes we can get information from destination schools as to how well our grads are faring. That’s something, but it’s dependent on the kindness of strangers, and necessarily a lagging indicator. Attrition rates for the liberal arts major tend to be fairly high relative to other programs, though I suspect that’s more a function of its serving as the ‘default’ major than anything else. If we differentiated ‘liberal arts’ from ‘undecided,’ we might get a truer reading, though I’m told there are financial aid implications to that.

Deciding what’s missing from a liberal arts major isn’t always obvious, either. Doing it right would involve holistic assessments of student skills at graduation, with the goal of identifying gaps to be addressed. But a program as flexible as this will necessarily result in many different kinds of outcomes, and will necessarily resist much intervention. (The extent to which that’s good or bad is another question.)

Wise and worldly readers, does your campus have a default major? How does it handle students who aren’t entirely sure what they want?

On a slight tangent, I've always wondered if a criminal justice degree really gives you any advantage in law enforcement over any other degree. At my last school, 1 out of 13 students were in criminal justice, which seemed a bit ridiculous. Worse, many thought they wanted to go into forensics, which really requires a science or engineering degree with the students not seeming to realize this.

Same could be asked about undergraduate business - is it truly any more helpful to get into middle management than other degrees?

In any case, I do think we've gone too far with vocational-related degrees (even within liberal arts) and have lost much of what liberal arts degrees fantastic.
"undecided"...that is our default. Which is only slightly different than liberal arts. At least you can leave school with an Associate of Arts, last I checked you can't get out with an Associate of Undecided.
We default all our students into double majoring in Arabic and Particle Physics. We've found it really encourages them to make their own choice in a hurry.
Food for thought, but perhaps pushing too many students through liberal arts is the first step towards graduating too many evergreen PhD's that nobody needs.

But Anonymous @ 4:21 is right... those majors are probably useless for the most part. What does one actually *do* with a BA in business? Not much. No company is going to stick someone straight out of undergraduate school into middle management, and by the time one gets into middle management, his undergraduate education is not very relevant.
When I used to work at a community college, many of our AA students were pursuing a liberal arts track. As you described, these were largely either those who didn't know what major they wished to pursue when they transferred to a four year college/university or were students who were choosing, for lack of a better term, less common majors to transfer into and for which the community college did not have a customized AA track.

For students in the former group, Advisors would normally steer students toward working on the "safe" general education courses that tended to be the same across all majors and transfer institutions while at the same time encouraging them to spend some time in career/major exploration (possibly assisted via research online, the resources of the community college's career center, or by taking a career decision making course).

For students in the latter group, Advisors would work with the student and the institution he/she planned to tranfer to in order to ensure that he/she was taking courses that not only met the community college's AA requirements but also were appropriate to prepare him/her for transfer into the desired major. One of the things I used to enjoy most as an Academic Advisor at the community college was having the chance to research various institutions and all kinds of "unusual" majors in order to learn more about them and assist students in their academic preparation for them.
Anonymous 4:21--You make a very good point. Many of the vocational programs and degrees are neither as relevant nor as useful as they may seem to some students. Plus, the skills required in some fields, particularly those that involve a lot of technology, can change very quickly. But analytical, critical thinking and writing skills are always needed.

I think now of a recruiter from a major Wall Street firm who visited a campus on which I taught. He said he would be happy to hire an English major for his or her writing skills. "I can teach a Cub Scout how to read a portfolio," he explained.

Many students do not realize what I or Anon said because, as often as not, whoever is advising them, whether formally or informally, may not realize what employers, four-year schools or graduate schools really require. So, they don't understand that people who go into forensics have science or engineering backgrounds, and some even go to medical school, or that the financial services and investment firms were hiring engineers, statisticians, mathematicians and computer scientists rather than accountants or MBAs.
I enjoy lurking on message boards for people in various careers. A while back I used to lurk on one for law enforcement. People would often ask them what major they should study. None of them recommended the criminal justice major for those interested in law enforcement. Their logic was that that almost everything taught in a criminal justice program would also be taught in the academy, so it was a waste. In addition, the degree would not provide anything to fall back on if the law enforcement career failed to work out.

I'd recommend some kind of accounting emphasis for people interested in business careers.
Majoring in Business at my community college is not a loss at all. We have a transfer agreement with a four-year institution so that once they leave our program for theirs, they have one more year to their BA and only two more years to their MBA. Additionally part of our program includes two semesters of Practicum (work experience for college credit) which goes towards their work experience to qualify for the MBA program.

Not only do they get to get their first two years cheaper, but they also get a one year head start in the process.

Not all of our technical majors are so smoothly streamlined to lucratively transfer, but some are. Don't underestimate the value of your technical programs.
I don't really understand the question, since we don't have "majors" within the AA degree that the vast majority of our students are seeking.

I guess you could characterize our AA degree program as "liberal arts" if you include math and science within that scope. More than half of the credits are directed toward meeting the general education core required for transfer, but there are enough electives that most students can pick up all of the pre-Junior required courses for their eventual major. (The only exception are future science and engineering majors who don't start with calculus, which would be almost all of them.)

This means that our "liberal arts" AA degree is by no means directed towards Evergreen disciplines. It is taken by criminal justice majors along with business, English, and particle physics majors.

Concerning your observations, Dean Dad, we don't go quite so far as the full Chinese menu approach but we do have several column A column C options that make it easier to fit major-required courses into this scheme and/or avoid something you think you don't like and/or keeping faculty in some areas sane by giving them some teaching options once in awhile.

My observation from years of advising is that we would be better off with a more prescriptive curriculum for freshmen - like what you describe from your Prop U days. My impression is that they are used to that from HS and get nervous don't know enough to know what to choose.
Specifically concerning criminal justice:

We get a lot of students who plan to transfer to a 4-year CJ degree program. This makes for easy advising because the major requirements are well-suited to athletes ... meaning there really aren't any requirements other than the gen-ed liberal arts core. The market for this major are those careers that require a college degree, such as parole officers and many police departments.

We also have an AS degree program in criminal justice that apparently feeds the growing need for prison guards who can read at the freshman college level. (That sentence is snarky but also appears to be true.)
"We also have an AS degree program in criminal justice that apparently feeds the growing need for prison guards who can read at the freshman college level. (That sentence is snarky but also appears to be true.)"

This mentality is the biggest problem I face in my job.

Studies have shown that for students entering a community college - especially if they are the first in their family to do so - those that go into a vocational program are twice as likely to graduate with a certificate or degree then those going into an academic program. Additionally, on average they will have 250% higher earnings during the first decade leaving college.*

And yet our counselors are always "oh, you don't want to be a welder, you have to go into academics and transfer to a four-year college or your life will be a waste." Fortunately we catch a lot of those students and set them straight, but how many do we not hear from again because they go into General Studies and then drop out after a semester and go to work digging ditches?

Maybe at your school your vocational program is crap. But in general for many students entering community college choosing a vocational program will be the best choice they ever make.

(*Note that the 250% statistic includes those students that failed to graduate their academic program, because that's sort of the point. Students that do complete their academic program and go on to a four-year and succeed there are likely to earn a bit more, but the odds are stacked against them in comparison to those going into a vocational program)
Anon 7:24 - my entire office got a giggle from your post. Thanks for helping us start the day off with a smile.
From all accounts, our vocational programs are great. Seriously, there is apparently a real demand for prison guards with an AS degree, probably because our region's typical HS grads can't really read or write reports.

I don't see the data, but I've heard that our clock-hour programs (like Microsoft certification) have a great success rate and excellent placement rate. Ditto for our Nursing AS degree.

Our AS programs in early childhood (meeting certain licensing requirements in our state) and accounting (often resulting in a profitable small business) are also effective but not as popular as they might be. I suspect this is because of the promotion of a 4-year degree as the best option in life.
People would probably be surprised how complicated being a prison guard is...and in particular how much paperwork there can be. Every interaction with a prisoner is an opportunity for a civil rights suit, especially things like removing recalcitrant prisoners from cells (known as "extraction" in my state) or searching and seizing contraband. Prisoners are extremely litigious...and while it's not like they have a great success rate, prisoner suits do have to be answered...and it's easier to answer them if you have a coherent account of what took place.
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