Two-year Majors



Should community colleges have psychology majors? English majors? Poli sci majors?

The trend nationally is against it. The “guided pathways” movement is all about “streamlining,” which means reducing the number of available options to the bare minimum. The theory, and there is some empirical support for it, is that students are easily overwhelmed by too many options. Keep things simple, and there will be fewer places for something to go wrong. This is the argument for the plain vanilla “gen ed” major, which lumps together most pre-transfer liberal arts students into a single category. Let them be generalists early; they can specialize after they transfer.

There’s truth to that. The differences in the first two years of, say, a history major as opposed to a poli sci major are often subtle enough that they could easily both be contained within a single structure that includes a few electives. I’ll even admit that the bureaucratic overhead of many majors is greater than for just a handful.

But I’m starting to wonder about the value to both the student and the college of making a more specific identification relatively early.

The value to the institution is easy. Knowing that a given student wants to transfer on for psychology, as opposed to political science, makes it easier to assign an appropriate academic advisor. I’d rather send a student to a professor in her chosen field for guidance than to one who just happens to inhabit the same large bucket of vaguely-related disciplines.

The value to the student is more subtle, but more important. Many community colleges have some version of a generic transfer major. That major typically has one of the lowest completion rates on campus. Some of that is due to planned early transfer, such as when a student only ever intended to spend one year at the cc before moving to the four-year school. Although that technically counts as attrition, I’d argue that it’s measurement error; the student got what she wanted and went on to finish. But some of the lower graduation rates of generic transfer majors, I suspect, comes from the fact that they’re generic. They become dumping grounds for undecided students, by default. But those are the students who most need direction.

Forcing students to pick something — knowing full well that they have the option of changing it later — can nudge them towards acknowledging some sort of substantive interest. I’m thinking here that it may be akin to party identification and voting rates: people who register as Democrats or Republicans tend to vote at higher rates than people who declare themselves independents. Much of that is probably a reflection of previous underlying interest, but some of it may be self-reinforcing. It may not be a coincidence that voting rates have declined along with party identification. Asking the students to declare the academic equivalent of a party may induce a greater sense of academic belonging. They’ll know who their peers are.

A few well-developed tracks within majors (‘options’ within a single major) can accomplish much of what I’m suggesting. At Holyoke, for example, the psychology major is an option within the liberal arts major. That’s probably enough, since it still allows us to know who to send to the psych department for advising, and it allows students to declare a substantive interest. It even allows us to generate critical mass to run some solid 200-level psych courses, instead of consigning the faculty to teaching nothing but Intro for the rest of their careers. That matters in its own right.

Wise and worldly readers at community colleges, have you seen or found ways to differentiate usefully among the students in the generic transfer major?