Kyle Copeland entered Missouri State University with a solidified plan to study nursing.
But like many students, his interests shifted. The plans dissolved. Copeland, now graduated, came head-to-head with his major choice during his sophomore year. Aware that his parents would pay for "four and no more," he rushed to find another field that would allow him to graduate on schedule. He enjoyed his new major--communications--but he knew it wasn't what he wanted to do long term.
The push for students to graduate in a timely four years, combined with financial stress and parental and societal expectations, often leaves students stuck with majors they no longer enjoy. And some students, like Copeland, end up choosing a new area of study that might not fit their interests just because it works with their graduation schedule.
Students who enter college with a declared major change it more often (3-5 times) than students who do not have a declared major (1-2 times), according to the University of California-Berkeley's Career Center website. In both cases, the changes frequently cause students to push back graduation dates.
Career counselor Andrea Rifkin, based out of Santa Barbara, makes her living by helping young students find their passions so that they can effectively use their time in college. She uses personality and interest assessments to recommend areas of study and offer direction. After more than a decade of college and career counseling experience, Rifkin found that while personality does not often change drastically in a lifetime, interests certainly do.
Rifkin described the "quarter life crisis" and "turbulent 20s" that students encounter while in college as a time of frequent frustration. Much of this involves deciding on a career path and the battle that follows: finding a job.
William Weeks, a junior at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, acknowledged that outside forces often influence students' fields of study.
"I was at a technical high school, so I was on an advanced track to be in the medical field," Weeks said. "I was pressured by society to make money. Then when I actually got to college, I realized it was not for the money. It was about what you enjoyed."
Weeks switched his major without getting knocked off the four-year track. He's currently studying to become a history teacher.
Weeks' description of societal pressure resonates with Danae Sunderman, a junior at Nebraska Wesleyan University. Majoring in exercise science, Sunderman expressed her initial desire to become a chiropractor, despite her distaste of science classes.
"I wonder if I picked it partially because of pride, like becoming a chiropractor versus becoming a teacher was more prestigious," she said.
Though Sunderman decided to finish the exercise science curriculum, her career goals have changed. Venturing on two overseas mission trips opened her eyes to a career in campus ministry, where she would have to raise her own staff salary.
University of California-Santa Barbara student Brittany Daley also experienced a change of heart in terms of career choice. The senior always dreamt of becoming a lawyer, until she recognized God pointing her in a different direction. The change required Daley to reevaluate her college schedule to accommodate her Spanish and global studies majors.
Daley faces uncertainty about what specific jobs are in her future. But she hopes to share Christ's love and use her gifts for His glory, rather than her own, she said.
Many universities adopted graduation guarantees and similar initiatives to combat students' extended stays on campus. Through Eastern Illinois University's "Four Year Graduation Guarantee," students commit to choosing their majors carefully, meeting with academic advisors and taking summer classes when necessary. If they cannot graduate in four years because of errors on the school's behalf, EIU promises to pay the remaining tuition costs.
State legislatures and the federal government closely monitor college costs and make sure universities spend financial aid dollars carefully. When college students graduate in four years, it saves money and upholds accountability, said Mary Herrington-Perry, assistant vice-president for academic affairs at EIU.
Switching majors is sometimes inevitable, she said: "The important thing is that we constantly are engaging our students in conversations about the consequences of their choices so that they can make informed decisions."
Many students do not have the opportunity to experiment with different majors. J.T. Pastor, a freshman at Purdue University, felt the urgency to declare his athletic training major while still in his first semester. He recognizes the "competition in every area of medical education" and knows that a four-year plan will help him get accepted to graduate school. Right now, Pastor doesn't think he'll switch majors. He's confident in his choice and thriving in his classes, but he's still only in his first semester of college.
Because the pressure to choose a major begins even before the first semester, Rifkin advises students to see a career counselor while still in high school. The "introspective work" often directs them towards majors suited for their personalities, rather than fields that a parent or society encourages, she said.
"Your job is to go out in the world and find your meaning," she said. "Find out what really rings your bell, and then look at options."
Even if switching majors ends up delaying their walk across the stage, students continue to seek out majors and career fields that will suit them best. For Sunderman, this means taking the leap into campus ministry.
"I realized that when I'm surrounded by my Christian community, I'm the happiest," she said. "They always say do what makes you happiest. Why wouldn't I?"