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What constitutes a good major in college?

By Xiong Bingqi | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2023-07-07 14:56

A parent gives her child a high five for encouragement in Guangzhou, Guangdong province on June 7, 2023. [Photo by Parker Zheng/For chinadaily.com.cn]

During the annual college entrance examination, one of the most pressing questions for students, parents and teachers alike is: What constitutes a good major in college? The topic often sparks animated discussions online leading to creation of terms such as “trap majors”, “regretful majors” and “majors unsuitable for students from ordinary families”.

In reality, there is no inherently good or bad major. The key lies in whether a major suits an individual. For universities, the decision to offer certain majors should be in accordance with their educational positioning and available resources. A major popular in one university may be a niche subject in another. For students, therefore, the choice of a major should be based on their individual traits, interests, abilities, and long-term academic and career goals. A “good major” for one student may be an uninteresting or “poor” one for another.

Universities and university students often blindly follow the existing trend when it comes to offering and choosing majors respectively. In recent years, with the rapid development of artificial intelligence, many universities have rushed to offer “hot majors” such as AI, intelligent engineering, and big data management and applications.

From a societal and technological point of view, these majors may be in line with the existing trend, but a university need to evaluate whether offering such majors aligns with its institutional character and positioning and whether it has a faculty that can properly teach such majors to the students.

Unfortunately, due to a lack of consideration of these factors, many universities rush to offer so-called hot majors that quickly become “niche majors”, “poor majors”, and are even questioned as unethical or unsuitable choices. In fact, the majors that have been most frequently revoked by universities in recent years are the ones which were introduced as “hot majors” a decade or two ago.

Hence, evaluating the quality of majors at different universities should not be generalized. At a time when more and more students are opting for higher education, universities can be broadly classified into two categories. The first focuses on elite education and general education and accords priority to the cultivation of talents based on their distinct ability while adhering to individual universities’ institutional character and positioning. Such universities do not constantly introduce new majors or scrap old ones just to adapt to the changing trends.

The second comprises universities that specialize in vocational education, aiming to meet society’s demand for specific talents. Offering certain majors aligns with their institutional character, but it might not necessarily be advantageous for universities that focus on general education.

To ensure universities offer majors that meet students’ real needs and suit their aptitude, the role of teachers and academic committees is crucial. Such committees need to evaluate the necessity of offering a new, specific major based on a university’s institutional character and available resources.

When choosing a major, Chinese students, in general, often fall into the trap of misinterpretation. For example, many students divide majors into popular and unpopular categories based on the limited information or knowledge they have about those majors. For instance, if students were to choose a major based solely on the views of those who label some subjects as “trap majors”, very few, if any, would opt for them. But in reality, many outstanding graduates emerge from such fields.

Similarly, the idea that “students from ordinary families should not pursue certain majors” is baseless. Suggesting that only students that have the backing of a well-off family can excel in these majors and secure good career prospects is preposterous.

For individual students, whether a major is good or not depends on three factors. First, personal interest plays a crucial role in a student’s choice of a major. Choosing a major that one is genuinely interested in fosters a passion for the subject and facilitates excellence in the field. Unfortunately, many high school graduates in China are uncertain about their true interests when filling up their college application form.

Second, it is necessary to understand the real demand for a major. A major is considered popular or niche depending on the relationship between talent cultivation and societal needs. Many majors which students and parents believe to be “hot” are, in reality, “niche majors” — fields where the supply of graduates exceeds the demand for them in the job market. Many majors in humanities and social sciences introduced by universities in the past 20-odd years fall in this category.

And third, it is necessary to consider the institutional character and positioning of a university when analyzing a particular major. Even if a major is generally perceived as unpopular, it may be a strong and distinctive program at a specific university.

In summary, the evaluation of a major should be tailored to a specific university and student. “What suits you best is the best choice” — this approach encourages universities to develop distinctive majors and helps students choose a major that aligns with their interests and aspirations.

By doing so, we can optimize the academic disciplines in universities, prevent the proliferation of similar majors due to blind imitation, and ensure students do not blindly pursue so-called good majors.

The author is director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute.

The views don’t necessarily represent those of China Daily.

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