Best Practices in CS Education – Part – IV: Flexibility in declaring the major

Posted on March 24, 2012

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Author:   Sanjay Goel, http://in.linkedin.com/in/sgoel

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Many great universities  believe that the university education is for self exploration and figuring out what a student wants to do with of rest of his/her life.  Unlike Indian universities, they offer tremendous choices and flexibility to students.  The most interesting facility available to students is the freedom to choose their area of specialisation (major) after 1-2 years of undergraduate study.  The students don’t have to make an early and premature decision about their major at the time of admission.  Once decided, universities also give the option to students to revise their decision.   A very large population of students finally major in some area very different from what they initially planned.

On the other hand, Indian universities have the system of depriving the students of such a freedom.  Kids of 17-18 years have to prematurely decide their area of specialisation right after their school.  Hence, such a decision is typically taken under parental, peer, or societal pressures.  They are discouraged to explore their own interests and passions.   This results in expansion of programs and tremendous competition for admission in certain disciplines, e.g., computer science. Many students realize that their interests and passion lie somewhere else.  However, Indian universities do not address this question by giving them options to switch majors.  Consequently, we see a very large number of dispassionate students in such disciplines.  This also contributes to low standards of examination and also large number of  cases of cheating in assignments and project work.  Indian universities need to learn a lot from the policies and practices followed by few top universities in this regard.

Here, I am giving the overview of policies of few top universities in this regard.

1.     MIT:   MIT offers a choice of around 40 majors to the undergraduate students in the areas spanning over architecture and planning, engineering, humanities, arts, social sciences, management, and science.  All students begin with an undeclared major. The first year program is designed to help students to determine their choice of the major.  They then are then free to choose their major without any further admission process or requirements.

2.     Stanford:  Stanford offers a choice of over 80 majors to the undergraduate students in diverse areas. Students are not required to decide their major until they complete nearly 50% requirements of undergraduate program, i.e., 90 units.  Even after this point they may change their major if their interests shift.  Students can also pursue an area of scholarly inquiry outside of established departments or programs through Individually Designed Major.

3.       UC Berkeley:  UC Berkeley offers a wide choice of major in diverse areas. They are expected to be accepted in their major by the time they have completed 50% requirements of undergraduate program, i.e., 60 units.  UC Berkeley encourages early but not hasty decision in this regard.  An engineering  student  must select their major at the time of admission.  However, after one semester, a student of good academic standing can apply for change of major.  This application can be submitted a minimum of two semesters prior to anticipated date of graduation. Students enrolled in the Engineering–Undeclared program can declare a major after completing one semester. They must do so  by the end of their fourth semester.

4.     CMU:    Students admitted to college of technology at CMU declare their major at the end of their first year.   Whereas in the science school, first year students are directly admitted in BS (CS) program. All BS (CS) also need to complete a minor in another field of their choice.

5.     Cornell: Students of engineering do not have to necessarily declare their major until their 4th semester.

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