I’m not sure who said it first, but someone was quoted saying that the most important moment in scientific discovery isn’t when someone says “Eureka!” It’s when someone says “that’s weird…”
Anomalies suggest questions. Questions drive investigations, and therefore discoveries. It’s not always as tidy as that, but that’s sort of the point; it’s the moments of untidiness, the loose threads, that can lead to unexpected places.
All of that as a way of saying that the institutional research office just threw me a hell of a curveball, and I need the help of my wise and worldly readers to figure it out.
A couple of years ago we created an “Undecided” major. The idea was that if we could get students to self-identify as somewhat lost, we could target advising (and a success course) to them. It would also help us distinguish the real liberal arts majors from those who only took liberal arts for lack of any more specific ideas. As it happened, at this point the Undecideds far outnumber the liberal arts majors.
Prompted by a question from a colleague, I asked the IR folks for some basic demographics on the Undecideds.
In a college with a male/female student ratio of 47 to 53, male students make up 59 percent of the Undecideds.
I did not expect that.
The breakdown by race was striking, too. The overall student body here is 61 percent White, but White students are 72 percent of the Undecideds.
The Undecideds also skew young, though that didn’t surprise me; older students often come with a specific goal in mind. That one seems clearer.
This group is disproportionately young White men.
We have a gender gap in our graduation rates. Across every racial category, women students graduate at higher rates than men. We know that lacking a clear goal makes it likelier that someone will walk away. So at least at that level, the finding tracks with what we already knew. If male students are less likely to have clear academic goals, then all else being equal, we’d expect them to walk away at higher rates. And they do. But that doesn’t explain why they don’t have clear academic goals in the first place.
I don’t have a well-thought-out theory on this; I’m hoping that some wise and worldly readers who know much more about this than I do will be able to shed some light.
It’s entirely possible that the label “Undecided” doesn’t capture the nuances of student preferences. Some might be truly undecided, but might feel like labeling themselves as such is admitting defeat. Others might handle indecision by jumping with both feet into something defined and seeing what happens. Students from groups that feel more vulnerable, such as minoritized populations, might not feel as entitled to admit that they don’t know what they want. They may feel more pressure to assert belonging, and declaring a major is one way of doing that. Or they may feel more economic pressure to enroll in the name of a job, as opposed to enrolling because it’s next, or for lack of any better ideas.
Or it could be a local quirk. I haven’t seen national data on undecided students, but I”m hoping others have. If it’s just a local quirk, then I’ll reduce the grand theorizing. I don’t think human nature is meaningfully different in Monmouth County, New Jersey, than it is anywhere else. A small sample size can mislead.
Wise and worldly readers, have you seen good information on undecided students? If so, is it consistent with what I’m describing here? And are there good theories on why indecision might vary among demographic groups? I’d love to get from the “that’s weird” stage to the “and here’s how to use this information” stage. Thanks!