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Study: Path Through College is Indirect and Stressful for Many Students

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Despite a deeply held belief that success in college is crucial for success in life, the traditional path students assume they'll take is more an exception than the rule, according to a new report.

Though most students believe the college path -- high school, college with chosen major, internship, job -- will smoothly go from one phase to the next, the reality is quite different for many students. And as a result, stress and anxiety is causing them to make haphazard decisions about their education.

Switching majors, falling behind the academic schedule, and feeling disenfranchised by the conventional college system are becoming institutionalized student experiences, states the report [PDF] from MyEdu, an Austin, Texas-based company that offers online tools to help college students manage their academic lives and career opportunities.

The study, which takes into account the randomly selected responses of 1,047 students from MyEdu's 300,000 profiles, shows that more than half of students have switched or considered switching their major during their academic career and that the overwhelming reason for this change was due to changing interests, and a lack of enjoyment in the first major selected. What's more, 37% of respondents classified themselves as "nontraditional students."

So how to fix it?


Though many believe access to online courses through one of the proliferating MOOCs, study author Jon Kolko suggested online learning represents the wrong application of the right technology. Instead, he says the same kinds of algorithms that contribute to a self-paced math course, for example, should instead be used to evaluate a student's progress in traditional college courses. For example, he envisions MyEdu and its competitors (such as Koofers, Princeton Review, and HeyCampus) offering tools that can take a student's performance and feedback from a general education course and suggest or rule out potential majors.

“I don't think computers are that good for learning, but they're really good for this administrative side of things,” said Kolko, MyEdu's vice president of design, who is planning on using feedback from the study to hone its tools and inspire new ones. The company currently has profiles of about 300,000 students who are mostly enrolled in large state institutions in Texas and elsewhere in the American Southwest. The company makes its revenue by providing data about those students to career recruiters.

On a larger—if more unrealistic—level, the simplest way to help students be more productive and less anxious in college may be to alter the typical path of their common experiences.

For example, in its analysis of 14 in-depth interviews with college students and more than 1,000 surveys completed by a representative sample of MyEdu users, the report found that students were most influenced by nontraditional academic experiences like study-abroad trips, internships, and mentorships. But while those experiences often lead to the identification of a long-term life goal, they generally come toward the end of college, and don't leave time for a change of course in study, at least while an undergraduate student.

Kolko accepted the suggestion that encouraging students to enroll in apprenticeships, service initiatives, or gap year programs might help more of them find their goals more quickly and lead to a more efficient path through college. But he said the stigma attached to an indirect path to college would likely keep most from considering them, so instead colleges should look at ways to make the path to a degree more flexible.

“I don't think it's fair at all, or even legitimate, to expect an 18-year-old to exit high school knowing what they want to study,” Kolko said. “But if we're not going to change the way the game works, we need to give them the information to make that decision more proactively, and we need to make those decisions less binding.”


This isn't to say students don't take college seriously—in fact the report finds most believe the college experience will determine what happens during the rest of their lives. But that sense of finality often leads to mistakes like choosing a major based on ease of completion, relying on parents who themselves did not go to college for college advice, and making any sort of big academic choice before it's necessary.

Here's a look at the report's four primary findings:

COLLEGE PREDETERMINATION: Students believe the path from college to career is relatively linear and rigid—choose a college, choose a major, get an internship, get a job—and then aren't mentally prepared to work around roadblocks to that path when they arise.

FORCED TO DECIDE: Students often feel they have inadequate time to make informed decisions about their academic future, and thus resort to less substantive reasons to guide that process, such as the plans of their friends and the opinions of their family.

OUTSIDE LOOKING IN: 37 percent of students labeled themselves as “nontraditional” because they could no longer meet the cost, time, or other requirements of conventional colleges and universities.

APPEARANCES VS. REALITY: Most students feel empowered to apply to jobs and internships and believe how to effectively show their unique skills; instead they are more skilled at generic cover letter and resume writing than at selling their best talents.

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