Think SATs Are Stressful? States Forcing High Schoolers To Declare Majors

New Florida law requires ninth-graders to determine areas of interest.

"What's your major?"

Whether posed in an effort to make friends or as a feeble pickup line, this icebreaker has escaped from the lips of virtually every college student. It's heard in the quad. It's heard at parties.

Now it's being heard in high school hallways.

As legislators try to curb high school dropout rates, a new trend has emerged: Several states are forcing high schoolers to get a jump-start on their futures by declaring majors.

Florida is the most recent state to hop on the trend. Governor Jeb Bush signed a bill Monday requiring high school students declare a "major area of interest" in order to graduate. The measure is just one part of Governor Bush's sweeping educational-reform program, A++ Plan for Education.

"This bold measure will help prepare middle and high school students for the challenges ahead of them," Bush said in a press conference. "Our students will now take charge and plan for their future, realizing the decisions they make today shape their tomorrow."

One of the bill's expectations is retention. Florida's high school graduation rate increased from 60.2 percent in 1999 to 71.9 percent in 2005, but there's still room for improvement. The initiative's designed to prepare students for life after high school, whether that means heading to college or entering the work force. As early as middle school, students will map out an academic and career plan using an online advising system. They'll also have to complete career counseling at that level.

Beginning in the 2007-08 school year, Florida will require ninth-graders to declare majors. The areas of interest run the gamut from traditional academic fields like foreign languages to vocational training in areas such as carpentry.

"Students can actually major in the arts, or in science, or in math, or in a technical, career-oriented major that will get them focused, creating a more robust education system," Bush said.

Core credits in such basic subjects as English and social studies will still be needed to graduate. But elective credits let students focus on their major and even earn an additional major or minor, and the number of elective credits is intentionally high so students are able to change majors.

Supporters of the legislation say if students can focus on their interests, they'll be more encouraged to stay in school. Vocational fields will be offered to engage at-risk students and provide specialized training to those who aren't planning to go to college.

More education is available for high school students and adult learners in the form of a "ready to work" certification program, designed to give people a smoother transition into the work force. Students will be able to get occupation-specific credentials and an assessment of their skills in comparison to state standards.

While Florida has a reputation for its radical educational reform, South Carolina paved the way for instituting majors in high school. Last year, the state enacted similar statewide legislation aimed at giving students the skills they need after graduation.

South Carolina's Personal Pathways to Success system requires high schoolers declare a major from a variety of "career clusters," like Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources; Architecture and Construction; or Hospitality and Tourism.

"We wanted to make sure that students had the opportunity to focus on areas of study and majors that were more closely aligned with ... what the job marketplace is now and will be in the future," said Inez Tenenbaum, state superintendent of education for South Carolina.

Initial concern about pressuring students to make career decisions so early was appeased in the early stages of the program, Tenenbaum says. She notes that the enforcement of core-curriculum topics, use of electives for pursuing a major and flexibility to switch majors eased the transition.

"Students are excited about having a vision for their future, about already feeling like a mature adult and knowing that they have a road map to a career and higher education," Tenenbaum said.

Because the program is still relatively new, there's no hard data yet. But feedback has been positive. So positive, in fact, that Tenenbaum feels other states would benefit from following South Carolina and Florida's lead.

"I do believe that we expose our students to a wide range of options that will be offered to them in college and in careers," she said. "This is a rapidly changing economy and we can no longer rely on just college prep and tech prep to inform our students about what their focus should be."