More and more opinion leaders in education, whether they work in the sector or not, have questioned the value of college. Some colleges have responded by offering their versions of a ‘money back guarantee’. No, the college will not issue a full refund on your investment in a college education, but it will extend itself to offer courses for free or to help an underemployed or unemployed recent graduate to find an internship related to their chosen major.
The thoughts behind these programs are laudable. But they also expose a serious problem: too many colleges do not engage their students early enough in the discovery of a major, let alone a possible career.
This requires not only good advising, but also opportunities to test a possible direction through independent study, part-time jobs on or near campus, internships or co-ops with employers. Colleges that have substantial alumni networks or are located in or near a major employment center can certainly help their students, and many do. But colleges do not have an obligation to force an education, inside and outside of the classroom, on their students, unless they say that they will at the start.
It is possible to find many schools that deliver on this important task in offering a college education. The military service academies certainly qualify: everyone gets an education in leadership and basic engineering concepts. So do very specialized colleges, such as Olin, Babson, Patrick Henry or Webb Institute that concentrate on a small number of majors, leveraging their connections to help their students find internships and jobs.
What if you have some interest in engineering, but don’t know what the exact major will be? Purdue complements a common first-year engineering curriculum with a two-part sequence, Transforming Ideas to Innovation, that helps students to consider possible majors through team-based projects. The University of Pittsburgh asks all first-year engineers to take a two-semester seminar program and present a paper to a first-year engineering conference before declaring a major. At these schools, and many others, direction is provided, and students are less likely to be “capped out” of a major.
While specialized colleges, engineering schools and many education and health professions programs all offer direction at the start, others cannot. Liberal arts colleges, for example, by nature cater to students who are not firmly committed to a major at the start. Their curricula are designed to help students consider possible majors, but expect them to wait until the end of their sophomore to declare one, or maybe two. The best that an academic advisor can do during the first two years is to help freshmen and sophomores to be in a position to make that decision, and put the least complementary required courses on hold until that decision is made. Business students are often placed in a “pre-business” status over the first three or four semesters. They all complete the same set of core courses, though an Accounting major might be able to dive into the more advanced accounting courses as a sophomore.
Whenever a college sees direction from its freshmen, it is because the college gave it first. If you are concerned that a potential degree program does not come with a job at the end, you must check out what that school expects at the start. No school could ever offer a money-back guarantee on a college education unless it defined expectations for its students early and in writing.
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