To improve retention, colleges nudge undeclared students into 'meta majors'

Colleges implement guided department maps to increase freshmen retention rates

More colleges are offering exploratory or "meta majors" in an attempt to retain undeclared freshmen, Josh Logue reports for Inside Higher Ed.

At Rhode Island College students now enroll in the "Exploring Majors" program rather than check off "undeclared." The program consists of five "Academic Rhode Maps:" arts, science/math, humanities, business, and social or behavioral sciences. Each map consists of three semesters of recommended classes and general requirements.

Report: Academic advising best practices for exploratory students

"Often students have a sense of a general area that interests them," says Holly Shadoian, the school's assistant vice president of academic affairs and enrolment engagement. "'Exploring Majors' is just to get them that foundation and get them on their way, ready to make a decision," she says.

Of the approximately 1,200 incoming students, a full 160 selected one of the maps this year. If they do not select a true major by the end of the three semesters, they face a permanent hold on registration.

The programs employ two behavioral economics concepts, says Davis Jenkins, a senior research associate at Columbia University's Teachers College Community College Research Center.

First, it pushes students to make an "active choice" from a range of possibilities instead of allowing them to make no choice at all. Second, it offers a "prescribed default exploratory process," essentially setting them on a path instead of into unlimited possibilities.

Arizona State University and several community colleges have also implemented such meta majors, Jenkins says. The programs are especially popular at schools that cannot afford personal advising programs, he adds.

Results of these meta major programs are "promising, but not definitive," Jenkins says.

At Rhode Island, the Exploring Majors remain part of a larger retention effort. In 2008, the school implemented mandatory advising; in 2010, it began an enrollment management unit; and it then created a 45-credit cap for undecided students, before nixing that option entirely.

From 2011 to 2014, the retention rate for undeclared freshmen jumped 16 percentage points from 62% to 78%—just below the school's goal of 80% by 2018 (Logue, Inside Higher Ed, 9/11).

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