As students manage the stress of registration at the end of each semester, many of them feel a larger stress along with it: choosing a major. Although many factors affect students’ decisions about what to study, parents have continually influenced how and why students choose their majors.
From the beginning of the college search process, parents have a great deal of involvement in their children’s academic decisions. Studies show that nearly 60 percent of prospective students report they research colleges with their parents, and 61 percent of parents report that the final decision on where to enroll is made together.
Their involvement, however, does not stop there. Linda Boettcher, director of Academic Advising, experiences many cases where students feel pressure from their families to choose certain majors.
“A lot of students are caught in a position where they want to make their parents happy, but at the same time they also want to be happy themselves,” Boettcher said. “And often times they are not clear on what it is that makes them happy yet.”
Stress from parents, Boettcher explained, can be a complex problem. Sometimes the stresses relate to previous occupations of family members. Other times, the stress can stem from a family’s culture. The parents often have very specific ideas of what their child is going to do.
“This happens a lot in the sciences and the pre-med track,” Boettcher said. “The parents are thinking of the most secure future, while the children are afraid to say something to them. This is when it gets to be a complicated situation.”
Boettcher describes the role advisors play in this process as a “partnership.” They try to work delicately with parents in order to provide the best options for the student. Students are encouraged to research and think through what they believe they are truly interested in. They are provided with internship opportunities that allow them to see what they really like. Additionally, advisors often contact the University’s Alumni Association to match students with alumni who are in the field they may be interested in.
“We do surprisingly hear a lot from parents,” Boettcher said. “I kindly encourage them on the phone and through email to allow their children to advocate for themselves. On one side we are suggesting that students are moving into adulthood and that they need to make their own decisions, but at the same time parents want to very much involved in that process. Sometimes that requires recommending that they take a step back.”
Advisors found that the pressure from parents is related to the current U.S. economic situation.
“I would suppose that there is more stress from parents now because the economy has been rough and the cost of education has been on the rise over the past couple of years,” Boettcher said. “Parents are expecting that their students get a return on that investment.”
The U.S. Department of Education has conducted in-depth research on the growing costs of colleges across the country. They reported that, nationally, university tuition prices are rising around five percent per year.
“Tuition plays a major role in the decision,” said Academic advisor Alissa Vaillaincourt. “Parents have this point of view that, when paying so much money, they want their child to be in the best spot to make a significant salary afterwards.”
Another major factor to this problem is the varying definition of financial security.
“It is important to think about what one needs to be financially secure,” Boettcher said. “And I think the answer is not the same for every person. It is more important to be doing something you love. People who do what they love are usually ok with making a little less.”
Students vary in their experiences of parental involvement in their choice of major.
“My parents gave me a lot of freedom in choosing what to study,” freshman Stephanie Quetglas says. “However, they did stress the importance of putting myself in a good position to get a good job. They gave me a lot of advice, including that I should choose something that I won’t regret.”
However, some students felt they had much less freedom in their decisions about a major.
“I definitely feel stress from my parents over what to choose as my major,” freshman Serene Alhalabi said. “They need to approve of what I do, and that can feel very limiting. Because it is their money, they are concerned with me getting the best job possible.”
An article published by the Saskatchewan Leader-Post pointed out that college students are living in a world that is significantly different from the one that their parents encountered.
Despite these differences, the writer suggests that there are many ways parents can be involved in choosing a major without succumbing to the many stresses involved with the task at hand. These include being patient, encouraging their student to apply for internships and ultimately reassuring their children that nothing has to be set in stone.
“I think parents at first might influence what a student thinks he or she might want to do in the future,” Vaillaincourt said. “But eventually the students realize it is their job to make the final call. In the end, they are the ones who sign the papers.”