Limited enrollment programs and picking a major

Rebecca Sumsion
Graduate student Danielle Spencer reflects on her time deciding what to major in as an undergraduate student. (Rebecca Sumsion)

Editor’s note: this story pairs with “The benefit of university advising centers”

Imagine spending senior year of high school preparing a college application to a “dream” school. Spending hours in ACT or SAT prep courses, writing several essays for the admissions application and then sitting and waiting in anticipation of what will hopefully be an acceptance letter.

The acceptance letter comes and the college education starts. But the application process is far from over. As students explore majors to pursue, they often have to go through yet another application process.

For many students at BYU, this scenario is a reality they must face when they arrive at school. Majors that require applications are known as limited enrollment programs and can keep some students out of the major they are interested in. Only two or three programs out of BYU’s top 10 enrolled majors are limited enrollment.

BYU Academic Advisor Keith Proctor said he believes limited programs would be opened if BYU had more resources.

“We only have so many professors to teach these particular classes and we are constantly adding online sections of a lot of those limited enrollment type classes — the pre-requisite classes especially,” said Proctor. “We are doing what we can to address the need but there are still people that get turned away.”

Limited resources make it so students who have a desire to pursue a certain major may not get that chance. The low accessibility to limited enrollment is concerning to BYU sociology professor Benjamin Gibbs. Gibbs argued that if there is no clear justification for limited enrollment programs serving students better than open enrollment programs, then it would be better to allow students who want to participate in the program to do so.

“I think it’s hard enough to pick a major, and then it’s even harder to have picked a major and not to actually (be able to) enroll in it,” Gibbs said.

BYU graduate student Danielle Spencer doesn’t like intensive application processes and said she thinks limited enrollment programs cater more towards students who are “go-getters.”

“I wonder if they (programs) are not getting all the applicants or people who are actually interested,” Spencer said.

But how do students pick a major in the first place? According to Gibbs’ preliminary research, a successful major selection process requires a mentor, whether that be a parent, professor or academic advisor. Having a mentor helps students sort through the wide variety of available majors. Mentors can also help students analyze themselves to have a better idea of what major/career would work best for them.

Gibbs said before determining if a student is going to be prepared to take on certain majors, it needs to be determined if students have access to the “menu” of majors. For students with a background where they know few people with college experience, the menu is more limited.

“Our imaginations are only as strong as the people around us that inspire us and direct us into certain kinds of careers,” Gibbs said.

When Spencer started her undergraduate degree at BYU she didn’t know what to study. She didn’t know many of the different major possibilities.

“I would say most of us (students) are probably making decisions off of what to study when we don’t know what all of our options are, or we don’t have a clear idea of which careers are even a possibility after college,” Spencer said.

While deciding what classes to take, Spencer’s friend suggested they go meet with an advisor to receive guidance on what to major in. Spencer knew she had a passion for science in general. When the advisor suggested earth and space science education, Spencer felt like that would be a good option. Spencer now plans to go on to receive her doctorate and enter academia.

“We’ve found that students don’t care about our services until they need those services, or at least perceive they need those services,” Proctor said.

Proctor and other advisors have a large array of tools and resources to help students learn more about their interests and characteristics to help them decide what career, and subsequently major, they’d like to pursue. Proctor said occasionally he’ll work with a student going through the exploratory process only to discover that the student is not interested in any of the possibilities they deduced. This brings up an interesting problem, according to Proctor.

“In those situations, we typically see that students are trying to live someone else’s life,” Proctor said. “They are trying to satisfy other people and are not being true to themselves. So we work back to some of those original questions and we try to get down to what they really want to do with their life.”

BYU limited enrollment numbers at a glance (Rebecca Sumsion)

Then there are students on the other side of the spectrum who are sure of what major they want to pursue only to face applying to a limited enrollment program. Gibbs said that limited enrollment programs tend to favor students who are more prepared and resilient and who have the resources to spend another year in school to reapply to the program if they don’t get in the first time. The prospect of spending another year in school can be deterring for first-generation students or those with limited resources.

Proctor said he often meets with students who have declared a pre-major in preparation for applying to a limited enrollment program. They have decided what they’d like to do and are making sure they have a way to accomplish their plans. The students meet with advisors to go over plans in case they don’t get in to their desired programs.

“(These students) typically have the end in mind where they know what kind of career and job opportunities they are after and they see a particular major as their way to that goal,” Proctor said. “Because not everybody can get into our limited enrollment programs they often have to find alternate routes.”

Proctor said that when the students seek alternate routes it tends to stay in line with their central interests and characteristics. It is unlikely for a student to shift from pursuing music to pursuing computer science.

In advisement, Proctor works with students to help them discover what majors and career paths they could pursue. He also helps create alternate plans for students if their limited enrollment application falls through. Occasionally, Proctor helps students look into whether their education would be better served outside of BYU.

Not everyone gets accepted into BYU’s limited enrollment programs. If a student is set on a certain limited enrollment program but things are looking unlikely, then Proctor tries to help. Proctor will ask if they’re seeking a BYU degree or if they’re seeking to obtain that specific degree. Sometimes the result is that the student may transfer to a different school with a better opportunity to get into their desired program.

“I’m not really here to force students to stay in school,” said Proctor. “I’m really here to understand what their goals and their passions are, and help them figure out a way to get there.”

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