New Center Assists Largest 'Major': Undecided Students

When it comes to majors, one of the most popular is "undecided." University of Cincinnati's new Center for Exploratory Studies hopes to guide these students to a decision and an academic pathway that is best for them.

Housed in

Room 149, McMicken Hall

, the center opened doors earlier this month. Part of the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences, it will serve undecided students throughout the university.  It aims to serve a population that advising officials acknowledge has been largely underserved by the bulk of academia.

"Not only are these students largely underserved, there are schools that actually turn their backs on these students or ill serve them by trying to make them make a decision before they are ready," laments Eric White, executive director at Penn's State's Division of Undergraduate Studies, one of the nation's oldest programs serving the undecided student. "My own sense is that the bulk of schools do not systematically address the needs of undecided students," says White, a member of the board of directors of the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA). In 1994, NACADA established its Commission on Undecided/Exploratory Students (CUES), which calls for better programs to serve these students and acts as a network dedicated to the issue.

The figures reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education's 2002-03 "Almanac" show that 8.4 percent of freshmen say they are undecided about their majors and that 14.7 percent estimate they will change majors at some point.

The Chronicle's freshmen numbers, however, don't reveal the breadth of the issue, warns Tara Stopfel, the new director of UC's Center for Exploratory Studies. Stopfel points out that freshmen often assume they know what they want to major in, but may not possess the college experiences that are need to make their ultimate decision. She estimates that nationally 50 percent of students are undecided or will change majors during the course of their undergraduate studies.

At UC, the new center has a potential audience of 984 "undeclared" students, based on winter quarter 2003 enrollment. That's more than any individual program major, surpassing even the largest individual area of study, which is marketing, with 559 full- and part-time students. Although those undeclared students represented only 3.8 percent of UC's total undergraduate enrollment, Stopfel says 23 percent of UC undergrads - or 5,923 students - changed majors within the last academic year of 2001-02. 

The decision to create the center is an outgrowth of UC's Collegiate Structures Initiative - a restructuring effort, says Anthony Perzigian, UC senior vice president and provost for Baccaulaureate and Graduate Education. "This is another effort to address the needs of the very diverse student body we have at UC. Many new students to higher education are struggling for an identity, a major and the right academic pathway. This center is being created to help serve the large number of UC students who are really unsure about their major and to give them attention in their early, critical years." 

At UC's Center for Exploratory Studies, Stopfel says, the goal will be to give students "experiential" ways to help them make a choice, drawing from UC's long tradition of providing real-life learning opportunities.
 "Many students just wander around into courses without a lot of investigation and pick a major because they think they like a particular subject. Then one or two years later, they decide that's not what they want. This causes students to spend a lot of extra time and a lot of extra money without having a chosen path and without knowing much about the field," said Stopfel, who comes to UC from Lambuth University in Jackson, Tenn., where she served as associate dean of students and director of Career Development.

To provide undecided UC students with a better strategy for choosing a major, UC's Center for Exploratory Studies will work closely with the university's current academic advisers and the Career Development Center with its Career Navigator program. The new center will also offer:

  • Alumni Shadowing - Students will be able to check out a particular discipline by having lunch, interviewing or shadowing UC alumni who work in that field.
  • Major Mentoring - One of the best ways to find out what a particular major is like academically is to talk to current students majoring in that area. Junior and senior majors, working closely with professional advisers, will be made available to discuss the workload and demands of their discipline.
  • Externships and Experiences - The center will help students find placements to provide a hands-on approach to making up their minds. It will also work closely with the UC cooperative education program, the oldest co-op program in the world. Students will be able to "try on" various directions related to their majors and learn more about a particular work environment.
  • Advising - The advisers housed within the center will provide students with guidance and information about all UC baccalaureate programs and options.
  • Courses - Beginning in fall 2003, a one-quarter, two-credit course called "Discovering UC" will introduce students to programs in all 10 of the university's baccalaureate colleges.

For more information: (513) 556-6540
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