Finding a Major in High School

Schools' push for kids to specialize at an earlier age provokes debate: a jump-start or channeling?


It's school season again. This year, your high school freshman may come home with a surprising question: Mom, Dad, what's my major? Nationwide, more schools are asking students to choose majors—as early as in the ninth grade. These choices force students to focus on one area of interest or vocation, ranging from law and policy to janitorial work. But the move is controversial, and groups like the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which lobbies for liberal arts education, believe this is the wrong way to go.

When I think of high school majors, I think of England's rigid class-based system of education. In England, at least until recently, kids have traditionally been segregated by class early on. Wealthier children are usually placed on the illustrious career track and middle- or lower-class kids placed on the vocational track.

Debra Humphreys of the Association of American Colleges and Universities told a member of my staff that "while it is true that in Europe, for instance, they have been tracking students much more narrowly educationally much earlier and they have been doing that for years, ironically they are actually looking to us to actually reverse that trend because they are actually seeing that their students aren't well prepared because they get too narrowly focused too soon. So even as we are looking at that model, they are moving away from that model."

This, while many American school districts are moving toward high school majors. The New York Times reports that one school in New Jersey's Bergen County is launching a high school major program this fall and that "Florida districts will require every ninth grader to major in one of more than 400 state-approved subjects, ranging from world cultures to fashion design to family and consumer sciences. South Carolina enacted a similar law last year, designating 16 career clusters, including architecture, government, and agriculture."

Jump-start or peremptory channeling? I like the idea of fostering direction in students early on, but not to the point where it becomes constricting.