College graduation

Colleges are beginning to consider whether the major has outlived its usefulness. 

Credit:

Tulane Public Relations/Wikimedia Commons

Think about your college major — economics, art history, turfgrass science — whatever it was you chose to study.

How much of that major applies to what you’re doing today?

Jeff Selingo, columnist and author of College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students, guesses that for most of us, the answer is, “not much."

“This idea that we’re supposed to pick a major at age 18 that’s supposed to basically help us through the rest of our lives is outdated,” Selingo says.

Instead of trapping students in narrow academic silos for four years, what if colleges did away with the concept of majors entirely?

In Selingo's vision, rather than selecting a major, a college freshman would choose to focus his or her four years of study on a real-world dilemma, such as expanding Internet access in Africa, or replenishing the water supply in Arizona. This would be a more practical approach to learning than studying only biology, or English, Selingo argues.

He acknowledges that colleges are unlikely to reorganize their systems anytime soon, unless a prominent institution like UCLA or Harvard leads the way. A Stanford design team recently put together a vision for the future of the undergraduate experience, in which students partake in “purpose learning” and forgo majors for “missions.”  But as of right now, it’s just an idea.

“Employers are much more ready for this than colleges are,” Selingo says. “We don’t just sit around with other history majors and other English majors to solve problems in the workplace, but that’s the way we tend to organize colleges.”

Selingo, who was a journalism major in college, says that above all, colleges need to prepare students to be lifelong learners.

And he has seen the value of being adaptive firsthand. So much has changed in the last 20 years of journalism that, he says, about half of what he learned in college is now out-of-date.

This story first aired as an interview on PRI's Innovation Hub with Kara Miller.

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