Universities fast-track ‘meta-major’ selection to retain students, right-size resources

This fall, the University of Georgia system will ask incoming first-year students to declare their academic focus area even before taking their first class, creating the latest—and possibly largest—test of so-called meta-majors. As more administrators consider using meta-majors to help students build early momentum, increase completion rates, and facilitate resource-allocation, the effort at the Georgia system—which last fall had 328,712 students and 50,612 entering freshmen—“is drawing attention from college leaders nationwide,” The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

Creating momentum

Under the meta-major model, universities provide “intensive advising services” to help students identify their umbrella interests early on, then direct them into exploratory classes that map to majors under that umbrella and teach relevant study skills. Inspired by behavioral-economics research showing that people can be overwhelmed by too many choices and insufficient guidance, the model helps students move toward a passion “before choice paralysis kicks in,” says Tristan Denley, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs and chief academic officer of the University of Georgia system.

Such momentum is especially critical, proponents say, for first-generation students with limited exposure to different career paths. Tom Sugar, a vice president at educational services firm EAB and co-founder of Complete College America, a nonprofit that aims to close achievement gaps, says that handing students a course catalog with no guidance except for their families’ occupational experiences is “a recipe for disaster.” An analysis by Complete College America—which for years has been touting the benefits of meta-majors—found that 36 percent of college graduates would choose a different major if they could turn back time.

Containing costs

In addition, solidifying an academic path early on can save money for both students and schools. Since 2017, low-income students may use Pell Grants only for courses that help fulfill their major, so finding the right major quickly can reduce the cost burden and likelihood of dropout.

Georgia State University—which is part of the University of Georgia system and is widely admired for its focus on student success and socioeconomic mobility—implemented meta-majors seven years ago and has since seen a 30 percent reduction in major-switching. “[T]he shorter we make that path… the more likely the students are to graduate,” says Christina Hubbard, EAB’s director of strategic research. Some schools, like the University of Washington, also say the early visibility helps administrators plan for how many students will need resources in specific areas.

The University of Georgia system’s experiment is notable for its scale, but it is not the only one. The five-year-old Houston GPS (Guided Pathways to Success) network spans 13 institutions serving more than 260,000 students and offers meta-majors as part of a multifaceted student success effort, which also focuses on streamlining the transfer process. EAB Managing Director Ed Venit estimates that most colleges have considered meta-major programs, and many are moving toward implementation.

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