Category Archives: Majors and Careers
Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has wisely raised concerns about graduation rates by college athletes, particularly the basketball players now in the NCAA basketball tournaments. Sports fans like me enjoy these great, national contests, but we need to remember these young people are still students who would benefit from a successful college degree.
As we struggle to treat athletes like young people rather than entertainers, we need to think hard about why so many have difficulty with their studies. Certainly, the NCAA and colleges devote a lot of resources to fixing this, from creating eligibility requirements to providing tutors and supervised study times.
My own thinking is shaped by watching a culture of followers among athletes. Athletes make great leaders, to be sure, but they are first followers—of their coaches. Believing in the team and in a common mission is important to victory, so athletes learn how to follow the pack. That feeling of solidarity is powerful, enjoyable, and exciting.
Serious athletes—and all college athletes at every division level today are serious—spend most of their time with teammates. In addition to practicing, playing and traveling together, they almost always live together. They join the same fraternities and sororities. They may know no other students.
So it should be no surprise that they tend to make the same academic choices. They take the same classes. They congregate around the same majors, such as Economics and Political Science. They study together. They seek out the same skills, many of them in business, thinking they need them for careers.
And here lies the problem. Where solidarity might work athletically, it does not academically. When athletes homogenize their studies, they lose the chance to grow intellectually and to find subjects they love. They see their classes as an extension of their team, when classes should be a place to explore alone. When you pick classes because your friends are there, you are not developing ownership of your education. You are not nurturing your natural curiosity to examine and understand the world.
And without that curiosity, the motivation to go to class, to do the hard work, to ask good questions all evaporates. When athletes do this, their studies lose meaning and importance. Then they fail out, drop out or lose their eligibility. And, of course, they don’t graduate.
If you are a student athlete, then, think about what you want to learn. What makes you ask questions? What would you like to know? In your opinion, what should an educated person know?
Your teammates and coaches cannot answer those questions. Only you can.
I am excited that “Dean’s List: 11 Habits of Highly Successful College Students” is coming out in July. (See Amazon or Barnes and Noble to pre-order.) You might think of that list as a key chain, filled with a lot of keys to success. I don’t mean to suggest that they are the only keys to a meaningful college experience. They are not. But a list of eleven is pretty long, just as a keychain with eleven keys will have you wondering which key will open the door in front of you.
So let’s limit the number of keys, focusing on just three of them:
- Habit #2: Build an Adult Relationship with Your Parents. Let’s start with the trickiest one. Changing the most important relationship you have is necessary, inevitable—and challenging. I hope you enjoy supportive parent/s, but that support can get pretty interfering. Maybe you’re feeling that now, as they pressure you on your choice of college, and then your choice of what to study there. Those feelings of resentment are both important and helpful. They set the table for a process of separation, where you make more decisions on your own. The key here is to make those decisions about your intellectual freedom, such as the classes you take. Just try to avoid doing things just to poke them in the eye, from drinking too much to getting in trouble.
- Habit #5: Understand That Majors and Careers are Not the Same Thing. If you’re going to make independent decisions, it’s a good idea to make them thoughtfully and based on solid information. So this Habit is based on the fact that liberal arts majors are terrible predictors of careers. For example, History majors (like me) go on to hundreds if not thousands of different careers. If this is the case (and it is), then it doesn’t really matter very much what you major in, provided you love it. This point is critical. Loving your studies is central to success. So look for a major that is fun, interesting and fulfilling. And let the future take care of itself.
- Habit #10: Cope with Failure by Rebuilding and Forgiving. Lots of students struggle in college, sometimes with one subject, sometimes with everything. And failure is ugly, unwanted and even embarrassing. I’d ask that you embrace your failures as learning experiences, episodes that will strengthen your character and teach you life’s most important lesson: forgiveness. You’re more likely to learn that lesson if you have a softer landing, and that will happen if you get help. That can come from others—counselors, advisors, tutors—or it can come from you. Allow yourself the room for mistakes, for exploring, for experimentation. It won’t all be pretty, but it will make you wise.
Give some thought to these keys or habits, and consider learning more of them by reading “Dean’s List.” Also feel free to write your responses to these ideas here. I would love to hear from you. Advising is a conversation, so I look forward to having one with you soon.
Managing a successful transition to college, and enjoying a great time there, is itself a challenge—beyond the challenge of your classes. Having a big key chain of ideas is not enough. You have to figure out how to use them, when, and to unlock which door. Lots of people can help, from your mentors in high school to your new professors in college. And when you’re at a door, trying one key after another, remember that you will find the right key if you take your time and keep trying.