The Most Thought-Provoking and Meaningful Question We Should Be Asking Students

Timothy A. Alvarez, Vice President for Student Affairs, North Dakota State University

September 1, 2017

What is the first question that students have to answer, once someone knows that they are in college or going to college? You know what it is? We all know it, and we ask it all the time as well. We ask without a second thought. We ask without any hint of malice. We ask because we believe an 18 year old knows exactly what he/she wants to do for the next 50 years. You know it, and we are all guilt of asking it . . . “what’s your major?” We do it all the time, we do it without even thinking. We think it is an instant conversation starter, an innocuous inquiry, and innocent and thoughtful interrogative. And this can be one of the most destructive examinations.

Some of the current literature suggests that 50-70% of students change majors at least once, while most will change majors three or more times. Further, national statistics indicate that at least 50% of entering college students are undecided about their major. We have known these trends for quite some time, and yet we continue to ask the same question – “What is your major?” 

As a country, we have a fascination with majors and expect all students to have determined what major will allow them to make the most money. And of course, that makes the assumption that we consider “money” to be one of the metrics (and maybe the only metric) to measure success. How many of you pursued majors based on how much money you would make? I know I did. And I regret it.

Now imagine an 18-year-old student who is undecided. To further complicate this dilemma, let’s consider the demographics of our incoming students. More and more will be first-generation, low-income and students of color. Imagine you are a student from one, if not all, of these subpopulations, and someone asks you the ubiquitous query – “What is you major?” How would you answer? For me, the concept of shame, the fear of being judged, the sense that “I have to answer in order to fit in” comes to mind. I know, because that is what I did. I thought that is what college students did. That is what we expect.

This is further confounded by the fact that we typically do not know the depth and breadth of potential occupations available to us. Think of it this way, how many of you when you were 18 years old thought about being in your current position? I can tell you with certainty that I did not know what a Vice President for Student Affairs did, nor did I think I would one 40 years later. We have the responsibility, nay obligation, to open their minds to careers they have yet to consider, or that are yet invented.

So, I have replaced that adage with a new probing exploration – “What difference will you make in the world when you finish college?” The question has little to do with a major. Often times, the answers I receive are not related to careers or majors. The answers are more related to passions and values. Trust me on this one, it does allow for additional probing questions and less focus on a major. Nevertheless, it does afford the opportunity to make some connection with the major and college degree, and how it will help them satisfy their long-term objectives.

Frequently, though, they are ill-prepared to answer the question. I remember receiving an email months after asking this question to a graduating senior. The student stated that they did know how to answer the question. It affected her so deeply that she spent a copious amount of time reflecting. She indicated that it required much introspection and deliberation on the future and, as a result, she is pursuing a master’s degree in higher education administration.

So, the next time you find yourself prepared to ask the old axiom, STOP. Ask them a more thoughtful and meaningful question – “What difference will you make in the world when you finish college?” And be prepared to ask follow up questions. Frankly, you will love these conversations and discover them to be extraordinarily inspiring.

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