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When Parents Dictate the Major

I get how expensive college is. I wince when we list the tuition and room and board at the private, liberal arts college where I teach. I wonder how anyone can pay it (and I know we discount, and I know there are scholarships; I still wince). So, I totally understand how parents must be stressed to the hilt about paying for this very important investment in their son or daughter’s future. And I know they want it to “pay off” in the form of a job after graduation. I get that.

But what I don’t get is that parents don’t want their child to major in anything that is not “practical.”

I received what I consider a heart-breaking query from an incoming student to McDaniel asking me what art class she could take because she “loves art” and can’t imagine her life without it, but her parents would never let her major in it.

It’s her life. And yet the parents will not let her choose her major.

That makes me so sad. It also makes me feel that much more gratitude (even though I already feel grateful) towards my parents for putting none of that pressure on me. My father always said I needed to follow my passion/love. Furthermore, he always encouraged me saying that you can always find a way to make a living if you love what you do. I will likely never make a million dollars because I chose to teach and I realize with my full-time, tenured job that I am very lucky and privileged. I love what I do and I found a way. All the way back when I was a first-year student in college and took my first art history course, I just couldn’t imagine my life without it.

But what if I had parents that said I could not major in Art? I would like to think that another path would still have led me to teaching. But what if it didn't?

I haven’t met the student referenced above in person, yet. We have just corresponded by email. But I think of all the studies that show people who major in liberal arts disciplines make more money over time than those who go into more “practical” fields.

From the Wall Street Journal (9/11/16): Good News Liberal-Arts Majors: Your Peers Probably Won’t Outearn You Forever

From Forbes (11/13/2015): Why critics are wrong about liberal arts degrees

And from Inside Higher Ed (1/22/14): Liberal Arts Grads Win Long-Term

And this also from Inside Higher Ed yesterday (7/26/17): College Degrees Lead to 'Good Jobs'

I don’t know if that will satisfy her parents. And I don’t know if she can make that argument to them. But her story does make me realize even more the pressure that students are under – from us as faculty, from parents and other family members, from peers. And I wonder if I should be doing something different in my classes.

I heard on a podcast this morning that yes, parents want their children to be safe and secure. And that includes making sure that they can support themselves. But people, these young people are the ones that must live their lives. And they deserve to be happy. And only the individual can decide what will make him or her happy. Parents cannot decide what will bring happiness.

I am wondering if you have encountered such comments from students and how you answer them. And if you are as student reading this, what is your experience like? How do you decide on a major?

3 thoughts on “When Parents Dictate the Major

  1. mary

    3 cheers to letting the student choose! Our 2nd daughter just started her first job- while it winds up it is directly related to her major, it is a major she did not choose when she entered college, and actually didn't even know existed until after her freshman year- and she is so very passionate and excited about what she is doing- it is such an awesome thing to witness! we firmly belief that the purpose of college is to find and grow your passion- you need to wander to find your path -

    1. Gretchen McKay

      Thanks so much for posting. I love getting a parent perspective on this. I really do believe it is my job (and, lucky for me, calling) to help young people find their voice and place in the world. It doesn't happen right away for many, and some do not find it in the four years they are on a campus. I just heard from a former student who started her own business in Hungary! So, she is far from her art history major, but she's doing consulting and marketing, and she learned how to none skills in writing and communicating with people, so I am sure she's taking what she learned, even if she can't point to a particular "class" that taught her.

    2. Gretchen McKay

      And you are so right about not necessarily *knowing* the field exists until college. And sometimes they will find their way to jobs that do not exist yet! We have to get them ready for anything and everything (at least I feel that way).


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