By Kristin Owens
In 1987 I faced a major life-altering decision: Attend college or become a Boy George impersonator. Lucky for me, my future-thinking-parents weighed-in heavily. Off I went to the State University of New York at Cortland hoping my dorm room had enough outlets to keep my boom box plugged in for four years while I cried “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?”
Eighteen is a terrible age to ask what someone’s going to do for the rest of their life. Life hasn’t even started. My biggest excitements to date were picking out a prom dress and maneuvering the McDonald’s drive-through without scraping the bumper of my dad’s car.
High school seniors are predominately unaware of viable careers, let alone where their own interests lie. The pool has been small—their parents’ world. A big ocean of opportunities now awaits. Asking a junior adult to dive into an employment decision lasting the next 50 years is cruel, especially when it involves talent and paychecks they don’t yet have. The consequences of an uninformed decision can last until social security kicks in. Let’s put it this way, parents—you may need them to support you. Shouldn’t they have a well-paying job they love?
Other issues to consider are maturity and independence. Freshman year in college, particularly the first semester, is overwhelming. Everything is new. Everyone is new. Nothing is constant or routine. Living independently requires scheduling hours for eating, sleeping and socializing. It’s a large learning curve. Then add in academics? Good luck! Most freshmen have yet to do a load of laundry or feed themselves. It’s a big mistake to force a career choice, especially while they are just realizing whites don’t mix with reds.
I have some knowledge about this. My 25 years in higher education administration and teaching, combined with a Ph.D. on college persistence, add up to this simple gem: College freshmen need guidance. Or better yet, a path (with guard rails) to find their own way.
Seemingly contrary to the above statement, I would advise freshmen to enter college majorless.
Surprised? Hold on.
By requiring undeclared status, students’ perception can change from “woefully confused” to “carefully considering all the options.” For the first two semesters, freshmen should focus on completing core courses and play with some exciting electives. These credits are required anyways, so success is front-loaded.
Now, parents will howl, “Great! It’ll take her six years to finish that degree in 18th century German poetry.” Well, actually, that curriculum requires a graduate degree and is a whole other conversation. But by focusing on core courses, students actually complete requirements faster—it keeps them on a nice trajectory. Call it a carefully selected buffet of options that leads to graduation. In addition, college administrators want your kid to graduate; students who take longer or drop-out ruin carefully constructed completion statistics. This results in a whole lot of glossy marketing brochures being tossed in a recycling bin.
Besides, here’s a big bad secret: Students ultimately change their major anyways. In the beginning, they typically select a parent’s major—mostly due to ignorance or wanting to please. Within a semester, that major changes again. Independence coupled with awareness leads to another change. Before you know it, that music degree is looking pretty terrific just as long as they graduate.
Around the end of sophomore year, students have achieved a pretty good handle on their academic likes and dislikes. Plus, they’re a little savvier about potential careers. This leads to good decision-making. Don’t be surprised if their newly revealed major is something you never heard of, there’s a good chance they didn’t know about it either two years ago. Besides, Cannabis Cultivation and Fermentation Science are both hot right now.
My recommendation to parents with college-going kids is this: Push, but not too hard. Be patient. There’s a big difference between being 18 and 19 years old. And a lot of change in college is to be had, which is completely normal. And expected. Give them time.
It turns out college was a good decision for me. And grad school. No fame but enough fortune to retire early. Still, a small part of me lives with the disappointment of never being a gay man working in the lip-sync industry. Now post-menopausal, I realize it would have been an awfully tough gig to sustain. By the way—college made me much smarter. Thanks, Mom and Pop.