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The culture of Bethel is one that encourages students to try new things and to think critically.
Sarah Unruh ’12

Bethel explores new ways to help students maximize value of liberal arts

by Melanie Zuercher

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – As more and more students start college undecided about a major, Bethel College has been implementing ways to address that trend.

And one of its most effective tools may be the oldest – its liberal-arts nature.

Anywhere from 33 percent to 50 percent of incoming freshmen – depending on the institution – are undecided when it comes to their choice of major.

Even those who start college with a declared a major have a good chance of changing their minds, sometimes more than once, by the end of their sophomore year.

Furthermore, a study of graduation rates of 7,000 students at Western Kentucky University suggests that students who enter college without declaring a major may actually enjoy the best chance of graduating in four years.

Bethel’s newest plan to meet this current reality is an Undecided Major Program.

In their first two years, students who come to Bethel undecided will be guided in completing all lower-level general education requirements while exploring major areas.

Part of that “strategic exploration” is a one-credit-hour course – appropriately titled Major and Career Exploration – coordinated by Career Services staff.

This curriculum addition is set to begin with the entering class in 2014-15.

The Undecided Major initiative is part of an overall effort to ensure college success, starting when students first set foot on campus.

Dan Quinlin, professor of languages and director of Bethel’s Center for Academic Development, shared results of his study of freshmen and whether they declare a major on beginning college, nationally and at Bethel.

The national demographics for students who say from the start they are “sure” about not changing their major, Quinlin says, shows them to have lower high school grade point averages and SAT/ACT scores, a less-rigorous high school education, more academic and social confidence and less-educated parents. They also tend to be a member of an ethnic minority group.

The comparison is with students who come to college undecided on or uncommitted to a major.

With that in mind, Bethel has several key components in its program for first-year students.

Liberal Education Advising has been in place for a number of years. All freshmen are divided into sections of College Issues Colloquy (freshman seminar), each led by a full-time professor who serves as a student’s academic adviser until s/he does declare a major.

Junior Renae Stucky, Moundridge, is one who credits her Liberal Education Adviser, Barbara Thiesen, with being an important resource in helping her decide on her major – history with secondary education licensure.

“I came to Bethel leaning toward history but undecided,” Stucky says. “I was worried I wouldn’t have many career options when I graduated. What could I add? Maybe teaching – but I wasn’t sure I was interested in teaching.

“Barb helped me choose classes that would [apply] if I changed my mind about teaching. So when I did decide on that, I had a lot of the pre-requisites.

“It sounds cliché, but she was always there. She supported what I was thinking and didn’t push me to decide.”

Newer elements in Bethel’s support structure are the Coordinator for First-Year Success staff position (as of 2013-14) and the shift of Haury Hall into an all-freshman residence (fall 2012).

Adding the Undecided Major Program will hopefully put another piece in the success puzzle.

“At the average institution,” Quinlin says, “at least 50 percent of all students will change major and/or career goals while in college. Change is common even among students who don’t anticipate it.

“Those who don’t anticipate change arrive with more confidence but less academic ability and preparation, and come from families less experienced with college. And the change is associated with higher dropout rates and a statistically significant decline in academic confidence over the four years of college. This suggests the need to change is more threatening.”

And what to say to parents who fear if their student starts college not knowing her or his major, chances diminish for finding a good job upon graduation ?

A 2013 survey conducted on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities found this: 93 percent of employers agreed that a job candidate’s capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems is more important than undergraduate major.

That was the experience of Kim Cutting of Wamego, a 1999 Bethel graduate with a major in human ecology and a minor in art.

Looking for her first full-time job out of college, Cutting saw an ad for a sales position with Tilesource Inc., a chain in the Kansas City area. One of the job requirements was a degree in interior design – but she decided to apply anyway.

Because her liberal arts education was “a bit broader,” she says, “it applied to the tasks the job required. A lot of what they had me work through in the interview involved problem-solving and math skills, which I had.”

She got the job.

Ray Penner, a Bethel graduate himself and president of First Bank of Newton, is in a position to look at a Bethel degree from the employer’s side of the desk, and he has hired a number of Bethel graduates.

“In my experience, Bethel College graduates who have had the discipline to go through that [liberal arts] curriculum have been given the freedom to think and to make decisions,” he says. “They have good ability to lead and discern. They have been taught to think.

“We know that you’re now likely to change vocations three or four times in your life,” he continues. “The liberal arts give an understanding of other facets, the discipline to understand other things that can satisfy – not just money, but what makes you into a whole person.”

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2014-15 Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.