Year three and still undeclared: What happens when students still haven’t chosen a major by junior year?

Dec. 5, 2018, 5:01 a.m.

Stanford undergraduates who do not declare a major by the end of their sophomore year find an enrollment hold placed on their account in the fall that prevents them from registering in winter classes.

This hold, while intended to motivate students to complete the major declaration process, can be lifted as long as students have a conversation with their academic advising director.

University communications, however, present declaration as a prerequisite to lifting the hold.

“If you have not yet declared your major, please do so as soon as possible,” wrote Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Harry Elam in an Oct. 2 email to undeclared upperclassmen. “You must complete the major declaration process no later than Monday, October 22 in order to have the enrollment hold removed before Winter Quarter registration begins.”

On Oct. 16, some students received a similar email from Lara Tohme, Associate Dean for Residential Advising in Undergraduate Advising and Research (UAR). Tohme’s email added that if students do not declare by Dec. 21, they will be unable to register for Winter 2019 classes before the Preliminary Study List Deadline of Jan. 7, 2019, subsequently incurring a $200 Late Study List Fee.

In an interview, however, Tohme said that the hold will be released as long as a student talks to their advisor, even if they remain undeclared.

“The hold will be lifted if they have the conversation,” she said. “And there will be strategies that the advisor will discuss with the student about how to choose your major or what some ways of thinking about narrowing your choices are.”

Enrollment holds, she said, are a measure designed merely to bring students and advisors into conversation.

“We do encourage a conversation with a UAR advisor, and in order to bring a student in to have that conversation, we have to make certain that a student will pay attention, to be quite honest, and that is why there is a hold,” Tohme said.


Why students wait

In early November, Ellie Utter ’20 declared a major in urban studies. Jack Golub ’20 did the same, declaring sociology.

Utter said she has known she would major in urban studies for more than a year, but she held off on making it official. She saw little reason to complete the declaration process, she said, because it felt arbitrary.

“I was just stubborn,” she said. “It was just frustrating to me that they pushed so hard toward artificial goals.”

She added that she declared because she thought it was the “only way” the enrollment hold would be lifted.

Golub also wanted the hold to be lifted, but he was unsure about what to declare.  

“I sort of fell into a sociology major the other day when I went to meet with the chair of the department,” he said. “He thought I was meeting to declare, and I thought I was meeting to ask about what a sociology major entails, and then he filled out my declaration form and asked me to sign it.”

Golub did sign the declaration. But from his own perspective, he said, he remains undeclared.

“I haven’t really picked sociology,” he said. “I’ve just signed a sheet that says I have, which maybe — if you want to get technical — means I picked it, but I may well switch to [comparative studies in race and ethnicity]. I may try to do both.”

Golub said one of the reasons he wanted to wait was because he had not yet found a major that “aligns perfectly” with his academic goals.

“[Sociology] is one of a couple major areas that has a good amount of overlap with the classes I want to take and my academic interest,” he added.

In addition to the enrollment hold, both students cited communications from the University as an influence in their decisions to declare.

Golub referred to Elam’s email highlighting the intellectual benefits of declaring a major, as well as Tohme’s subsequent email, which raises the specter of fines.

“It’s an interesting ‘good cop, bad cop’ approach,” Golub said.

The emails, Utter said, “felt more aggressive with time.”

She added that the emails created a sense that she was alone in being undeclared, which, she said, is far from accurate.

“You feel like you’re the only one getting the angry emails, but then I realized two of my best friends also hadn’t declared,” she said.

Golub said he also felt like there were implicit social pressures attached to the declaration process.

“One of the first questions people ask when you meet someone is, ‘What’s your major? What are you studying?’” he said.

Tohme did not provide specific figures but defended the University’s policies, noting that “most” students declare by the end of their sophomore year.

“We want students to find their academic home sooner rather than later, so that they are plugged in with major advising, with faculty connections, with resources that might be available to particular majors and to get well on their way to start exploring a curriculum or a discipline in depth,” she said.

Sophomore year, she added, is the ideal time for declaration.

“We don’t want them to do it in their frosh year because we really want to encourage exploration across the curriculum,” she said. “The second year the hope is that a student would be able to find an academic path that they want to pursue further.”

But Utter said the declaration process was depersonalizing.

“I think Stanford wants to say that it’s very student-centered, but when it comes down to trying to push people out in four years and trying to have stats on where people are studying and what majors people are in, I think Stanford’s very much so just focused on churning it out,” she said.


Contact Charlie Curnin at ccurnin ‘at’

Charlie Curnin '22 is the editor-in-chief of The Stanford Daily. Contact him at eic 'at'

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