A major decision for low-income students

BY APRILL EMIG | The Statesman How does a college student decide on a major when they don’t even know what a “major” is?

The class of 2016 will graduate nearly 2,000 students from UMD. The color of their tassel will show their area of study. For example, women’s studies majors will get white, economics majors wear brown, music education is pink and so on.

But nearly 1,700 of these 2,000 students will get a color they hadn’t planned on when they first stepped on campus. More than half of college students will change their major at least once, most will change their major at least three times.

But for first generation college students, the step before choosing a major is simply understanding the concept. Something that’s taken for granted by many students whose parents know the ropes of college can be foreign to others without someone they know leading the way.

“When you don't have parents that have either put other students through school or have negotiated that for themselves, it’s a very confusing process,” Lisa Reeves, the director of Students in Transition at UMD, said. “And it's even more confusing because it’s all up to you.”

They may see this indecision as incompetence and become further alienated from the college experience.

“There’s a stigma that they think they don’t know things just because they’re first generation,” Michele Hatcher, a student advisor in SCSE, said. “What they don’t know is that non-first generation students feel the same way.”

At a school like UMD, which offers 93 majors, this choice can be overwhelming.

“I think that students mostly don't know what they want to do for the rest of their life and at 18 I'm not sure we should even suggest they should,” Reeves said. “But school is expensive so the longer it takes for you to figure it out, the harder it will be to get out of debt later.”

UMD students graduated with an average debt of $30,345 in 2014, according to the Office of Institutional Research.

With the rising costs of tuition, and the student debt that goes with it, lucrative majors like those in STEM fields become more appealing. This is no exception at UMD.

“There’s a lot of students who - because of the debt that they're going to carry - won't choose a field where their passion is, knowing they won't make any money to pay that money back,” Reeves said. “So they go into other fields to make that money.”

The three majors with the highest earning potential at UMD all come from STEM fields. At $64,000, the degree with the highest first-year salary was chemical engineering, according to UMD’s 2012-13 Graduate Follow-up Report. The second- and third-highest paying were industrial engineering and electrical and computer engineering, both with a median salary of $60,000.

STEM fields tend to attract a lot of first generation students who may be trying to move beyond the low-income backgrounds they come from. But because UMD does not track first generation students beyond knowing how many there are, we don’t know how many of them are now in STEM programs.

“There can be a lot of pressure to be the one that’s successful in the family or be the only person to have a degree,” Hatcher said. “There’s that pressure to succeed.”

Unfortunately, some low-income, first generation college students didn’t have access to the technology of their more affluent peers. Public schools are funded by local property taxes, resulting in variances even within the same city.

This is why Rachel Breckenridge, an instructor in the math and statistics department, decided to create a summer program for underrepresented students in STEM.

“The Math Prep for STEM Careers” program at UMD allows qualifying students to take free online math courses in order to test out of them. They can also participate in a voluntary five-day summer camp at UMD.

Freshman bio-chem major Akquaa Anye participated in the program last summer.

“I didn’t want to at first,” Anye said. “Who’d want to do math in the summer? But it was totally worth it. I don’t think I could sit through an algebra class during the semester.”

Though Anye isn’t a first generation student (her mother went to college), she faces many of the same struggles.

“I was clueless about the process, especially financial aid,” Anye said. “But this keyed me into things I may not have known otherwise.”

SCSE is currently the only school at UMD with a summer program and many of the students who participate know they’re going into a STEM field. Those who choose a humanities degree may not be as lucky.

But while the high pay of a STEM degree is tempting, not everyone needs to be an engineer.

“There’s only so many bridges that need to be built,” Jennifer Doebler, a coordinator in Academic Affairs, said.

Susan Maher, the dean of CLA, agrees.

“There’s so much emphasis right now on the STEM fields but we lose sight of how we need nonprofit directors, we need teachers, we need advocacy workers, we need all kinds of people in this world,” Maher said.

Though students who graduate from CLA earn less than their SCSE peers the first year on the job, salary isn’t everything.

“We know from our own studies and surveys nationally that the six-month out survey (conducted by career and internship services) doesn’t tell you the right stories about our students,” Maher said. “Five or 10 years down the road, CLA graduates are doing really interesting and well-paying work.”

Maher adds that students need to pursue degrees that align with their skills and interests, not just something they think will make them a lot of money.

“Find something you’re passionate about,” Maher said. “If you don’t, you may commit yourself to a career path that’s a dead end to you.”

Understanding what kind of career a student might pursue is why Hatcher encourages them to choose a major very intentionally.

“You need to have personal, academic and career knowledge - learn about yourself in a number of different ways,” Hatcher said.

Maher expressed the same sentiment, encouraging students to follow where their talents take them.

Both SCSE and CLA are the only colleges on campus that accept undeclared majors. Maher and Hatcher say that students shouldn’t be discouraged if they’re undecided, citing the frequency with which students change majors and the importance of finding the right fit.

“Students who come in undeclared often end up happier in their chosen major because they’re more open to exploring the options,” Hatcher said. “It’s okay to be uncertain.”


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