Every April, stress abounds throughout campus as freshman BSE and sophomore AB students face the deadline to declare their concentration. They struggle to pick the right department to fit their individual scholarly needs. Yet this stress is unnecessary: career professionals regularly tell college students that their majors do not affect their employment prospects, and alumni from universities around the country increasingly regret their choices in hindsight. So why do Princeton students agonize over this seemingly meaningless decision? More importantly, why does the University require concentrations at all?
Recognizing that the career impact of one’s major is mostly negligible, the University should not require students to decide between disciplines in the first place. The combination of general degree requirements with classes required for a concentration can unnecessarily constrain students’ academic careers at a time when they should be permitted to explore their varied interests. While the former is essential to preserving the authenticity of the liberal arts experience, the latter is indefensible in the limitations placed upon students. The University should reimagine what constitutes a meaningful academic experience, and eliminate the requirement for students to focus on a singular discipline.
This should not be misconstrued as a call to eliminate concentrations altogether, which provide useful tracks for many students seeking to center their studies around a specific area of interest. Yet this does not work for all students. Princeton’s Mission Statement cites a rigorous “program of liberal arts that simultaneously prepares students for meaningful lives and careers, broadens their outlooks, and helps form their characters and values” as a “defining characteristic” of the University. A liberal arts learning experience theoretically involves the freedom to engage with numerous disciplines, particularly those in which a student has not received previous exposure. At Princeton, however, combining the concentration and degree requirements hinders many students’ abilities to take courses of their choice in non-primary departments.
Burdening students with both general degree requirements and concentration requirements strips students of their agency to explore other subjects in which they might have an interest, fundamentally depreciating the value of Princeton’s liberal arts education for many students. Yet the degree requirements do capture the essence of Princeton’s aim to deliver a liberal arts education. General degree requirements —- compelling students to engage with quantitative sciences, historical analysis, literature and the arts, lab settings and more — comprehensively broadens students’ outlooks. The concentration requirement has less value.
The limitations of the concentration requirement are apparent throughout Princeton students’ academic careers. Majors with numerous prerequisites prior to declaration pigeonhole students into taking certain courses from their first day at the University. For concentrations without many prerequisites, meanwhile, underclassmen risk committing to a subject without any real knowledge of the department which will govern their academic decisions for the second half of their education. Regardless of their concentration decision, underclassmen choose majors under poor conditions. Students either end up spending their academic careers in one department — that they may dislike — without having explored others, or gamble by committing to a department about which they know next to nothing.
The concentration requirement has two defenses: serving as an administrative tool to help students along the path to graduation, and preparing them for specific careers. From an administrative perspective, majors help departments limit the quantity of students seeking advice from faculty affiliated with the department. Departments may argue that major selection is essential for shaping students’ independent work, one of the “defining features” of the Princeton undergraduate experience, as concentrations allow students to learn pertinent research methods and help assign them to appropriate advisors.
These issues can be solved without a concentration requirement. For junior paper and senior thesis advising, a more selective approach would alleviate quantity concerns; professors could reasonably reject students who provide less compelling independent research proposals. To address methodological concerns, meanwhile, Princeton could include methodology courses for disciplines in both STEM and the humanities as a part of students’ general graduation requirements; students would benefit from learning multiple modes of analysis anyways. After taking a general methods course, students pursuing independent research topics that require a specific methodology could enroll in subsequent courses covering those methods. Taking these courses would arm students with the necessary knowledge to conduct independent research in topics of their choice. Not saddled by additional concentration requirements, students could determine their own academic trajectories, honing a variety of skills by taking courses across departments, should they choose to do so.
The second defense, related to the supposed professional implications of majors, never leaves the ground. Universities fundamentally help students build the intellectual skills necessary to enter society in some capacity. Functionally, students’ experiences at universities are intertwined with their job searches. But the concentration requirement usually does nothing to shape students’ employment prospects. Instead, skills developed at universities influence student employability. Removing the concentration requirement would allow many students to gain a greater breadth of skills. Without strict concentration requirements, STEM-oriented students would have a path to learn from policy and economics professors, useful should they ever desire to enter a related field. Humanities students could access courses preparing them for software engineering internship interviews, useful should they have a potential interest in the field. For students lacking a strong inclination towards any single subject, removing the concentration requirement at Princeton would open doors to engage with a variety of subjects, taking full advantage of the University’s liberal arts designation.
Concentrations are far from necessary for a comprehensive academic experience at the University. From personal experience, despite enjoying many department courses as a Politics major, the majority of my most formative academic experiences came from classes in multiple other departments: Sociology, African American Studies, Computer Science, Journalism, and more. Some of these courses, particularly AAS201: Philosophy of Race, shaped my independent research alongside some of my Politics classes. While appreciative of all I have learned via Politics courses, I would have greatly benefited from an academic career without the constraints of the Politics major requirements, exploring classes across more departments and broadening my horizons — with added potential to influence my independent research as well. Students deserve the flexibility to discover unfamiliar departments, develop their own passions, and better prepare themselves for multifaceted careers and lives.
The University should still maintain the option for students to concentrate in specific subjects. Specific major tracks benefit students who confidently know their career goals, are overwhelmed by the breadth of opportunities, or want to focus their research in one method of inquiry. Ultimately, allowing students to take ownership over their education better fulfills Princeton’s liberal arts mission. Eliminating the concentration requirement at Princeton would hand greater agency to students, allowing them to shape their academic adventures and receive the full value of a personalized Princeton education.
Rishi Khanna is a senior in the Politics department and a contributing columnist for the ‘Prince’ from Newton, Mass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.