Image of a sailboat on a lake or sea

The first few semesters of a student's career at MSU can be fruitful in exploring subject areas, co-curricular activities, and considering passion and purpose prior to deciding on a major.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

 – attributed to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Some students enter MSU knowing which major they intend to pursue, but about 6% of students start at MSU unsure of what major to choose. The MSU curriculum, which includes university requirements in quantitative literacy, writing, and Integrative Studies in Arts and Humanities, Social Science, and Natural Science, encourages students to explore a variety of fields before settling on one to pursue for their degree.

This is an area, however, where our practices have not lived up to our ideals. Entering students who do not choose a specific major preference have traditionally been designated as having “no preference,” an unfortunate term that implies that students do not care about what they study. In reality, however, we know that students care deeply, and they feel great pressure (either self-imposed or from family or society) to choose a major. Advisors find that this sense of urgency can cause students to “just pick something.” Rather than taking the time to explore the wide range of options open to them at MSU and making an informed choice, students sometimes prematurely choose a major that they only later find they don’t like and are unable to complete. In turn, this can lead students to change their course of study late in their undergraduate careers – resulting in additional expense and time to graduate or, in some cases, perhaps not graduating at all.

Beyond just semantics, evidence from our University Innovation Alliance partners suggest that students who enter a well-run “exploratory” program, a program that builds on our university curriculum to specifically help students explore options and develop their purposes and passions, are able to make informed choices of the majors in which they can succeed and graduate. By contrast, currently the average MSU student makes four major changes before settling on a final pathway – clearly, for many of the students declaring a major and then changing multiple times, a well-run exploratory program would be a better initial choice than selecting a major with incomplete information.

Therefore, at the recommendation of the University Advising Leadership and after consultation with student success partners across campus, the MSU Neighborhood Student Success Collaborative adopted the term “exploratory preference” to describe students who have not yet decided the major they would like to pursue. Students entering in Fall 2018 will have the option of declaring an exploratory preference, and NSSC advisors will focus on working with them to construct course schedules and co-curricular activities to allow students to explore the wide variety of programs available at MSU. In addition, over the next academic year, “no preference” majors within college programs will be renamed to emphasize the ability of students to explore multiple options, and advisors from across MSU will work to enhance our ability to support students to develop their purpose and passion

As the quote attributed to Saint-Exupéry above reminds us, meaningful success requires developing the passion and purpose that enables hard work.  By adopting a more appropriate label for the course of study pursued by students who are still exploring different academic pathways and by providing them support to do so, our new exploratory programs will help students develop, graduate, and attain their goals.

Feedback and suggestions, especially from the MSU community, welcome: email

R. Sekhar Chivukula is the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education and Dean of Undergraduate Studies at Michigan State University.