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?