Custom majors for custom dreams

Customizable degree plans give students control over their academic experience

Keerthi Srilakshmidaran
Mercury Staff

Though the current college major system at UTD provides numerous options for students, giving students the chance to design their own major and explore areas of interest would promote flexibility and alleviate pressure to fulfill a certain number of requirements.

With almost 80% of college students in the United States switching majors at least once in four years, it is evident that many students have multiple areas of interest they’d like to pursue in college. Corequisites, prerequisites and lower-division and upper-division classes make it difficult for students to switch majors or add concentrations because of the completely new set of requirements they have to meet. In some cases, a change of major or an added concentration or minor can add an extra year to a student’s college career. More rigorous majors, in particular, offer little to no room for electives in other disciplines, and with most students trying to graduate within four years, they often prioritize taking courses needed to graduate rather than electives of personal interest. 

While UTD’s core courses can ensure that even the most STEM-inclined students get a bit of the arts and humanities, scheduling problems are inevitable and students may end up in classes they don’t like just for the credit. With the university emphasizing exploration and open mindedness on campus, there is no reason they shouldn’t make it easier for students to pursue their unique interests with a custom degree. 

More than 900 four-year colleges and universities – including Brown University, Swarthmore College and the University of Washington – allow their students to design their own major with an advisor’s help. These majors allow students to combine their interests into a single degree plan that may not be offered by the school already. In the past, students have created majors ranging from ethnomusicology to biological art to technology and society. Colleges like Swarthmore require a certain balance of courses – typically around 12 courses – that provide students with a comprehensive understanding of their major topic. To demonstrate mastery of the custom major, students have to write a thesis, fulfill an examination or complete a project approved by faculty.

With the advisor’s approval of the custom major – as well as assessment for mastery of the major subject – custom majors are a great way for students to take more courses that they are passionate about. In some cases, they can even be used as a replacement for a double or triple major and decrease the amount of time students have to spend in college.

However, majors like biological art that focus on two vastly different areas of study may make it hard for students to gain a deep understanding of both aspects of the major. To counteract this, students could plan to attend graduate school or take on internships to learn by experience.

Though reducing requirements for existing degrees can be a good start for increasing flexibility, taking out some requirements for traditional majors can reduce the value and understanding a student can gain from that major. Many students who take a traditional major with reduced requirements may struggle later in their field because they weren’t as prepared. People with custom degrees, however, choose courses directly related to their prospective field and understand that they might not get as deep of an understanding of certain topics as those who took a traditional major route. Nevertheless, advisors should ensure that the degree name is easy to understand and prepares students for higher education should they intend to pursue it.

UTD has always encouraged students to explore their interests and choose courses they’re passionate about. Giving students the chance to design their own major and take a combination of courses that will directly benefit them in their career will allow them to make the most of their university experience.