More than a Major: Evaluating the Whole College Experience

At the tender age of eighteen, we hand students the weighty baton believed to determine their future. For their entire academic career, we impress upon them the idea of college as a place to pick a major, take classes in that major, graduate in that major, and find a job in that major. And while that is a portion of the collegiate experience, it does not encapsulate all college has to offer. We often forget to sell students on why college is about more than just understanding a field of study.

College is a place—and time—of growth. The mere act of physically moving out of their parents’ house and into a dorm is a declaration of independence and a symbol of their immersion in a place of knowledge. And this knowledge doesn’t always come from a classroom—some of the best education doesn’t. In fact, an important subsect of students’ personal and professional development thrives in spaces outside of the celebrated classroom. To quote researchers Magolda and Terenzini, “85% of students’ waking hours are spent outside of the classroom.” Yet, our focus remains on that mere 15% of the time. There is so much more to the college experience than a student’s classes. In actuality, that’s the only thing that remains constant in their leap from high school to college. Students go to class; they always have. What changes is their freedom, the ability to get more involved in research, campus activities, internships, and peer groups that awaken new passions and skills. 

One area that has proven to have a significant impact on not only students’ career development but also self-awareness is student’s co-curricular activities. D.L. Cooper and J. Simpson’s research titled: “Student development through involvement: Specific changes over time” found that freshmen who join a student organization are more likely to develop a sense of purpose. In other words, involved students have a more sophisticated answer to the question “why?”. In fact, according to the article “It’s not just about jobs. Colleges must help students find their passions”, some colleges across the nation are implementing coursework, advising, and seminars to help students find the answer to this ubiquitous yet pertinent question. Purpose may seem solely internal but it greatly affects future career paths. College graduates who know their purpose seek out jobs that fulfill it and tend to have higher job satisfaction. 

Other studies cited by John Foubert and Lauren Grainger’s study, “Effects of Involvement in Clubs and Organizations on the Psychosocial Development of First-Year and Senior College Students” discovered that student involvement can help students in other non-academic areas as well. Some studies found that extracurriculars helped students develop more mature relationships with the people around them and bolster their acceptance of others. These involvement leaders on campus are more likely to be practically competent, understand complexities, and thrive in interpersonal communication. Interpersonal communication, both inside and outside the classroom, also affect student’s cognitive development. The better a student’s cognitive skills are, the better he or she is at understanding complex problems, utilizing logic, and thinking abstractly. And while these skills can be vital in an office setting, they are increasingly important in everyday relationships as well. 

As students are gaining skills that critically affect their career trajectories and lives, they are also performing better in the classroom. “Adding Value to the College Experience via Learning Outside of the Classroom”, an article published in Huffington Post, posited that engaged students are more likely to graduate than their counterparts. Another study titled “Relationship between Undergraduate Student Activity and Academic Performance”, found that student involvement leads to higher GPAs. Achieving good grades helps students get their foot in the door while their extensive skill set and self-awareness keeps them inside. 

These highly transferable skills and attributes become increasingly vital as college majors become less and less relevant. According to an article in the Washington Post only 27% of students end up working in a career related to their major. “Degrees at Work” conducted by Emsi, a labor market analytics company, postulated that bachelor’s degree earners’ career trajectory is far less of a straight shot as it is “people moving through the labor market like children in a crowded pool on a hot day.” This wading process leaves a great deal of room for adaptation as students must stretch, shrink, and color their experiences to meet certain job requirements. Frankly, it leaves specialized skills and highly specific lessons taught in the classroom in the dust for more transferable capabilities like interpersonal communication or positive leadership qualities. 

The long-standing tradition of selling college as a place to major in a field and nothing more severely undersells colleges and universities. It places a baton, often too heavy, in the hands of indecisive eighteen-year-olds as they believe that it is the single, most important decision of their lives. But the most important decision of their lives has already happened, they chose to go to college in the first place. All we must do is provide them with a school that allows them to chase experiences, join clubs, and acquire skills necessary to thrive in college and beyond. 

More than a Major: Evaluating the Whole College Experience

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