By Meera Srinivasan
We are all in a rat race. Whether it’s college admission, GPA, internships, graduate school or a full-time job: as students and adults, we are always in competition for the next phase of our lives. The past two decades exemplify the University of California’s attempt to expand its educational infrastructure to accommodate the increasing student demand for higher education. This expansion, however, has contributed to a college experience that is overly competitive and doesn’t allow students to develop holistically. UCLA would benefit from a system that encourages students to take classes across departments without needing to major or minor in them.
The impacted major system is one method that the UC’s manage this increased population. Due to high demand, certain majors are capacity constrained so that students must apply and be accepted into it on the basis of completing prerequisites and maintaining a GPA requirement. The acceptance rates into competitive majors, notably Economics and STEM, have lowered as demand increases making them less accessible.
From the start of our college careers, we’re forced to focus on getting into majors where we may or may not be accepted. Not only do students have to complete major prerequisites for department admission, but we also must balance general education, lower and upper division requirements to be eligible for graduation. Tack on the fact that class enrollment is ultra-competitive and perhaps one of the most stressful times for students because of how hard it is to get the classes you want. These bureaucratic hoops limit students’ academic scope as there is little room for error.
Cultivating academic curiosity and preparing students with skills for career success are key components of a successful college education. Ideally, students should be able to develop a mind that is passionate for a subject while also building on additional skills that maximize hireability. However, a students’ major choice isolates them to focus only on a single subject.
As a sociology major, I find this isolation to be true. While I am incredibly passionate about sociology and hope to obtain a PhD in the future, I am also well aware of how competitive the job market is. I want to develop technical skills at UCLA that can better prepare me for high paying jobs to support me through grad school or allow me to be flexible with my future. However, the current enrollment system at UCLA makes it difficult since I cannot enroll in most STEM classes.
It is not the major or job market demand itself which creates low hireability: it is the public university system restricting less career oriented majors from developing strong, hireable skills.
Statistics, for example, is now an essential skill set for any job regardless if it is in STEM or not. In fact, statistics is now seen as so essential that the California public school system is planning on de-emphasizing calculus and expanding high school curriculums to include data science and statistics classes. However, with capacity ceilings, only select students admitted into the major or pre-major are allowed to take statistics classes above Stats 20. This fact is true in data science, math, and computer science classes as well–despite the subjects being essential building blocks for job candidacy.
In other words, your choice of major limits what you can learn and pursue. This limitation could perhaps explain why the humanities have such strong stigmas attached to them within the UC system. We are unable to develop the same kind of technical skills that STEM majors can, not because of a lack of interest or ability, but because of bureaucratic processes limiting our choice.
This system is especially restrictive to transfer students, despite the transfer process being advertised as a better/cheaper path to UC admission. Transfers must apply to a certain UC major, and once admitted, cannot switch to another capped major even if they satisfy prerequisites. For example, if you transfer into UCLA as a sociology major, you cannot switch into the economics major even if you have a competitive GPA and satisfy every requirement.
I’ve experienced this first hand as a community college student myself. As soon as I started community college, I was told by counselors to stay organized and focus on completing prerequisites for a specific major. The alternative to not knowing what I wanted to major in, they said, was most likely staying for a third or even fourth year.
It took me countless hours to identify which classes would transfer into the UC system and how to satisfy my credits in time. This wasn’t made easier by the fact that UC’s, CSU’s and private schools all had different requirements. Luckily, I had AP credits from high school that helped provide me flexibility. But some students don’t have that luxury due to outside responsibilities in high school or a lack of resources within their high school to even take them.
When I reviewed the low transfer acceptance rates by impacted majors into UCLA, reality struck in that I needed to decide on my major quickly and excel in specific classes. I didn’t see much room for academic exploration.
Transfer students are robbed of a holistic college experience as from the get-go they are funnelled into this competitive system of requirements and standards. Without the right guidance, it is very easy as a community college student to fall behind or be steered away from the transfer process altogether.
The UC system must reevaluate the structure of enrollment and major capacities to create a more flexible system that encourages exploration. Perhaps this looks like increased state and federal funding, or an expansion of certain departments using incentives for new teachers. Whatever the case may be, the UC system has a responsibility as a top public school to set the tone for what a quality education looks like. This leniency and restructuring will help students become well-rounded and better prepared for the real world.