2016 Update: Part 4

Our review continues. This time with posts from July and August.

– From July: A Major Decision

Excerpts recap:

I had no idea in what I wanted to major when I went to college. As I’ve mentioned before, I was in college because I was recruited for my tennis playing abilities (such as they were), hardly for my academic prowess. Not knowing which path to take in life at the age of 18 is not an uncommon dilemma.

So, I did the default major of Business Administration. Thinking back on that now, I recall wondering just what that meant. I had thoughts of running a business (which I eventually became involved in almost four decades later), but had absolutely no passion or motivation for some of the course requirements, such as Accounting, Statistics, and Marketing.

One of the Accounting courses’ final projects inspired my first and only all-nighter. Across my many years, I have stayed up all night working only two or three times. This project drove me completely off the pier. I could not get my balance sheet to balance. This is when I discovered the reality that I was not a “numbers” guy. That was crucial information that has served me well during my life. Just as Dirty Harry said to Lt. Briggs at the end of Magnum Force, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” So, I learned mine at an early age.

college majors

This is an important time for all you rising seniors. Shortly (yes, quicker than you imagine), you will be assembling your college applications and very likely will be asked which major you intend to pursue. If you are like I was way back when, you may feel that the best approach is to be honest and declare Undecided.

You may be wondering about the consequences of making the undecided choice. If you are applying to an ulta-elite school such as an Ivy or other super-selective institution, you might feel some hesitancy, fearing that your indecisiveness would be a black mark on your otherwise outstanding application. That’s a completely natural feeling.

Thus, how should you think about this? Well, I did some research for you and found what I think is one of the better articles to address both side of the issue. In Pros, Cons of Applying to College as an Undecided Major, U.S.News contributor, Bradford Holmes, presents an objective assessment for you to consider. Here are some excerpts from his analysis:

At the head of his article, he states his thesis, with which I entirely agree:

Don’t declare a major on college applications if you haven’t fully researched potential fields.

This is Square Zero for your college kickoff. Why be like I was? I had no knowledge or understanding of what a business-related major entailed. That’s why I suffered in such classes as Accounting. Also, keep in mind that just because you consider yourself to be great in a certain area — maybe math or history –doesn’t mean that you would be happy and/or prosper in that particular major. …

… When to Apply to College as an Undeclared Major

Holmes’ wisdom is valuable here:

A-plus

If you have a competitive concentration in mind, but would like to use the first year of college to build a strong GPA, it likely makes sense to apply as an undeclared major. This is a particularly good idea if your high school GPA is not strong in the major’s related fields.

Engineering is one common major where this strategy may apply. Because engineering offers strong career prospects, making it a popular concentration, universities can be highly selective in which applicants they accept to their engineering schools. If you lack a history of high school success in science and math classes, it may be best to take college-level courses in the so-called STEM fields before you apply to the major. …

The insight about building a strong GPA is a good one, in my opinion. The freshman year can be traumatic for a number of reasons. It may be an excellent time for you to embrace your so-called distribution requirements. Those are the required courses that comprise the liberal arts segment of many colleges’ core curricula. If you attend a school that has no core, such as Brown University, for example, then your freshman year can be a quite enlightening adventure, as long as you don’t get carried away with adventurous course picks.

This is just a snapshot of Holmes’ thinking on taking the undecided approach. See the article for all his thoughts. …

Update:

There can be some advantages to not declaring a college major right away, as  notes:

undeclared college major

I once bumped into a father I know whose daughter had attended the same middle school as my son. I asked him where his daughter was attending college and he told me that she was enrolled at a community college.

I was surprised because Rachel is a very bright girl. The dad explained, however, that his daughter didn’t know what she wanted to major in so he didn’t feel there was any point for her to start at a four-year school.

While this is an extreme case, I run into a lot of parents who are not pleased if their teenagers haven’t selected a college major. To all those parents out there, I want to say: “Take a deep breath!”

It doesn’t matter if a 17 or 18-year-old has no clue what he or she wants to study. In fact, even if a teenager thinks she knows what college major she wants, she might change her mind once she gets to college and is exposed to many disciplines that aren’t offered in high school …

… For parents and teenagers who are stressing about college majors, a new study could help reduce the anxiety. The study, conducted by researchers at Western Kentucky University, suggests that students who enter college without declaring a major may actually enjoy the best chance of graduating in four years.

In the study, students who started Western Kentucky without a declared major, but selected one by the end of their sophomore year, enjoyed the best four-year graduation rate (83.4%), which was significantly higher than other groups of students.

The four-year grad rate among students who started school with a major and never switched was 72.8% and those who switched more than once graduated at a rate of 71.7%.  Students who fared the worse were those who waited until their junior year to declare their majors.

Calm college major

You are probably wondering why students who arrived at college undecided were better able to graduate on time. Matthew Foraker, the research coordinator at Western Kentucy, who examined the grad rates of 7,000 students, offered this suggestion in a Chronicle of Higher Education article:

You can read The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s article on the research here: Changing Majors Is No Big Deal If the Timing Is Right.

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- From August: College Food Rankings

Excerpts recap:

I often wonder if any high school seniors apply to certain colleges because of the great food those schools serve. Conversely, I also ponder whether or not anyone chooses not to apply to a college because the food is reported to be substandard.

college food

That’s an an interesting selection criterion. It may also be related to the so-called “Freshman 10″ (or 15, or maybe even 20!), but that’s another story.

I’ve written before about collegiate food quality, but thought it time to review the current “rankings.” Yes, something as subjective as food can be ranked, probably because some college food can be called rank.

Of course, no blog post of mine would be complete without an insipidly boring retrospective of (turn on the echo machine for another exciting episode of) How It Was When I Went To College. As all my devoted readers know, I attended two institutions of higher learning before nailing down (some have said “cobbling together”) my degree.

I spent my freshman year at a small liberal arts college in central Pennsylvania. At the end of that year, I couldn’t decide what I wanted to be when I grew up. So, rather than waste further time and money, allowing my grades to plummet due to my unsettled focus, and possibly get drafted into the military and sent to Vietnam, I withdrew and joined the Navy to avoid the draft. My strategy and budding sailor career promptly took me to Vietnam … twice. You gotta love it when a plan comes together.

Anyway, after my sailing days (daze?) ended, I transferred to Penn State University, which was at the opposite end of the spectrum from my little liberal arts school. So, I’ve seen both types of higher-learning environments: small colleges and huge universities.

What did I notice about the food back then? Well, it was certainly nothing like it is today. Maybe that’s because I wasn’t paying every year as much as a new Corvette costs these days. Food rankings did not exist and students weren’t looking for or even sometimes demanding epicurean perks. We were just happy to have a hot dog or a piece of pizza.

chef and food

The one thing that stands out in my memory of freshman year is the name of the guy who was head of food services at our little college: Mr. Bloodgood. Yikes. We used to conjure images of him working in the kitchen preparing meals. Those imaginations were less than appetizing. Maybe that’s why I spent so much time school evenings at Hilltop Sub Shop. I’ve written about that here too. The HSS is where my lifelong affair with mayonnaise began. Maybe I’ll write about that some day (I’ll give you advance warning).

After my time at Penn State, I was able to deduce a rough theory about colleges and their food. It appeared to me, from my micro-sample, that the smaller the school, the better the food. That is, there seemed to be an inverse relationship between food quality and school size: smaller = better; bigger = less good.

And that brings me to Best College Food. “The 2016 Best College Food ranking is based on meal plan costs and student reviews. Top ranked colleges offer outstanding on-campus dining – students can easily access healthy, quality food across a wide range of cuisines and dietary preferences.” …

… Looking back over the Top 10 here rather puts the kibosh to my smaller-is-better theory. However, you can check out the complete list, which is ten times longer than the above Top 10. You can also search by state and each school has a link for more details.

Penn State, by the way, comes in at #62. I think that’s appropriate. I didn’t see Mr. Bloodgood’s school listed, so I can’t tell if his efforts made a long-term difference (Dave said humorously).

So, ask your stomach where it would like to spend its next four years (or more). Then, go with your gut, so to speak. …

Update:

Just as with college visits, you have to have a reasonable sample base before making any judgments. For example, sample the wisdom offered here in Don’t Judge a College By One Dining Hall Visit:

A prospective college student visits campus and is delighted with the dining hall offerings. This isn’t so bad. Why does everyone complain about college food?

Then, the student enrolls at the college and is confronted with the same unappealing cafeteria options, over and over again, like some sort of bad dream.

The old “Check out our amazing campus food” trick is something many colleges do when it comes to campus visit weekends, pulling out the more exotic and appealing offerings in an effort to win over prospective students. But even though this meal may be delicious, it doesn’t tell prospective students what they need to know about a school’s cafeteria food. Here is the best way to judge a college’s campus food.

college students talking

Talk to Students

Don’t rely on your campus tour guide to tell you exactly what the food is like because part of their job is to only portray the good things about a school. If good cafeteria food is important to you in your college search, you need to go to a different source: upperclassmen or random students. Ask them what they think of the cafeteria food and whether it’s edible beyond the initial campus visit.

Check out Reviews

Niche Colleges has an entire section dedicated to what campus food is like. Read reviews from students and even find out where a prospective school falls in the Best Campus Food ranking.

Get Next Week’s Menu
During your campus visit, students may partake in savory Philly cheesesteaks, but what’s on the menu after they leave? If you can, grab a dining hall menu and find out what’s to eat when you’re not around.

Keep In Mind: You’re Being Courted

Don’t hate on a school too much if its food is especially good during campus visits. After all, the college is trying to impress you, and wouldn’t you rather have them pull out all the stops rather than bring out grilled cheese? Make sure you consider the big picture when it comes to your college search.

The Bottom Line

When eating a meal at the dining hall during a campus visit, just be realistic and know that not every college meal will be so fulfilling. For every taco night, there may be a questionable-meat night. It doesn’t mean a school is bad. More often than not, it just means it’s normal.

The common link between college visits and food evaluation appears to be talking to the students who are enrolled there. You’ll be almost guaranteed to get the straight scoop, unvarnished by any “courting” motives. Happy dining!

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We’ll wrap things up next time. It’s been an exciting year.

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Check College Confidential for all of my college-related articles.