You're Going to Major in WHAT?!?

Over the past 17 years I have witnessed a significant shift in the contents of the "anxiety buckets" my students bring to the table when they begin their college search processes. It used to be that students would worry if a school offered very specific, and very general, majors: business, education, psychology, etc. Today I find that rather than looking for a standard "order-by-number-with-the-option-of-supersizing" educational experience, they now want Chipotle-style offerings. Actually, no. They EXPECT that they'll be able to add the guac...and get double chicken if they're feeling up to it. Where students used to be excited about the possibility of double-majoring, they're now looking for institutions that will allow them to create their own majors: a self-designed academic experience...with no two students following the same prescribed curriculum.

So the question this leads me to is: should we be asking 16, 17 and 18-year old students what they plan to major in once they get to Faber College (ok, they won't get the reference but you get the point). Instead, perhaps we should be asking them about what they enjoy doing or, even better, what do they LOVE learning. Notice I didn't suggest asking what they want to be when they grow up or where they'd like to work to make the big bucks. Nope. In fact, look at some of the most successful entrepreneurs and you'll find that their businesses were founded on something they loved. Their cash rolled in because they did something they were passionate about...not just something they studied in college: Walt Disney (loved illustration), Bill Gates (loved computer programming), J.K. Rowling (loves writing) and Oprah (loves Oprah...well, it's true).

The problem that often arises when a student sits down with me and I ask them about what they like to do, or what they like to study is that my question is met with a canned response that they no doubt have been practicing since at least the 9th grade: 

"I like science. I'm good at it and I plan to study biology and go to medical school."

Now, I realize there are many students for which this forecasted trajectory might be accurate, and appropriate. However, I could probably count on one hand the number of students I've worked with who follow through on plans laid out in this manner. Sure, a student can "like science" and be "good at it"...what I'm not so convinced about is the "plan". Is this a plan that's been prescribed because of potential ROI, or driven by our definition of success? Or is it one where we can replace the word "like" with "love" and "plan" with "want"?

"I LOVE science. I'm good at it and I WANT to study biology and go to medical school."

Looking at how we define success there is often a clear benchmark that's used: money. Lots of it. However, a preconceived notion exists that those earning the most have most certainly been the product of the best business schools and medical schools in the country. Here's the reality based on the degrees earned by the top 100 wealthiest people in the world (image credit: Approved Index)

College Degrees Obtained by Billionaires

The most noticeable piece of this pie is that more billionaires studied something in the arts than most STEM fields, Economics and Finance. This is important to point out because many parents feel a punch to the gut when they hear their child wants to study something creative like photography, dance or theater. These students often feel their right brain slowly deflating as they're told they'll never get a job or make money "doing that". This needs to change.

Let's try this: the next time you're at a gathering with teens, instead of asking them what they'd like to major in when they head to college, ask them what they love doing. Follow that up with some inquiry into WHY they love whatever that is. Finally, pose this question to them: if you had the opportunity to create your own major - filled to the brim with classes on topics that you love - what would that look like? And most importantly...

Let them believe it and let them own it.

Don't discourage them with quips about how they'll never get a job by studying that, or that they should be prepared to eat Top Ramen in perpetuity if they go that route. Instead, share with them some stories of inspiration (if you've forgotten what those are, see the pre-Oprah link above) and encourage them. We can't expect kids to follow their dreams if we passive aggressively turn off their mental GPS. Each student has their own turn-by-turn directions...it's not our job to tell them they need to take the shortest or fastest or most logical route. Oh, and while we're at it, let them enjoy the ride.