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David B. Spight, Undecided and Exploratory Students Commission Chair 

David Spight.jpgThe effect of institutional policies and campus environments on advising undecided students is discussed within the Commission on Undecided/Exploratory Students membership through listservs, conference presentations, and informal conversations. Often the focus of the discussion is how students are served and how advisors deal with institutional policies and practices. The impact that institutional policies and environments can have upon our undecided students is considerable. As Lewallen (1995) explains, “some institutions are extremely supportive; others are indifferent or even nonsupportive. These approaches appear to have the potential to profoundly influence a student’s willingness to declare being undecided” (p.28-29). This article briefly examines some of the literature related to these topics.

College and university policies and practices may be responsible for some of the institutional pressures placed upon students. Many institutions strongly encourage, or even require, students to choose a major prior to or within their first year. Cuseo (2005) argues that “such institutional practice may discourage first-year students to remain undecided, while tacitly encourage them to make hasty decisions in order to meet institutional expectation that they should be ‘decided’ and housed in an academic department” (p. 35). When institutions promote early choices, they may place more importance upon organizational concerns than on the development of undecided students. Organizational change as a result of financial pressures and challenges also impacts undecided students as they face competing pressures to “join” particular majors as different departments attempt to recruit the same students to increase numbers. Or, equally concerning, students may be encouraged not to change majors to keep numbers more financially acceptable for departments. Titley and Titley (1980), however, believe that the needs of the students are sacrificed in these situations.

Additionally, college and university catalogs contribute to the institutional pressures undecided students may face. Institutional information distributed to students, Titley and Titley (1980) explain, “inherently imply that from among the many curricular offerings one ought to be able to make a choice” (p. 297). If academic program course requirements are too inflexible to allow and encourage exploration, students are forced to choose early or graduate late. These strict course requirements, Titley and Titley believe, can make students feel a sense of failure.

Many researchers contend that students need an environment that supports exploration, testing, and investigation of potential majors and/or careers. Most institutions, fortunately, offer support and assistance to undecided students (Lewallen, 1995). As Kramer, Higley, and Olsen (1994) explain, “advisors, academic administrators, and faculty can facilitate students’ academic progress by creating an institutional environment that promotes student exploration” (p. 96). Support should include assisting students with the development and implementation of decision-making skills, determining academic and career plans, and incorporating various related campus services in the process. Gordon (1995) notes that administrators should emphasize that “not declaring a major or career field when entering college is acceptable and for some students encouraged” (p. 50). Additionally, decided students should be afforded the same assistance provided to undecided students. As Berger (1967) claims, decided “students should be encouraged to consider an early choice to be tested, confirmed, or disconfirmed” (p. 888). Institutions must be intentional and purposeful when reorganizing campus environments that support and challenge students to examine, substantiate, or reject initial choices.

Advisors on some campuses may find it difficult to impact organizational structures or institutional policies. However, we can influence the environments in our own offices. Sometimes we focus too much attention upon which organizational structure will serve students best and forget that, regardless of structure, we can provide the kind of service and support that our uncertain and exploratory students need. Consider how we can create a place where students, whether undecided or decided, can examine, explore, or confirm potential majors. Our active involvement in professional organizations, discussions with colleagues, and participation in research and development can provide additional resources that can impact our campus policies and environments.

David B. Spight
Transitional Advising Center
College of Natural Sciences
The University of Texas at Austin


Berger, E.M. (1967). Vocational choices in college. Personnel and Guidance Journal, 45, 888-894.

Cuseo, J. (2005). “Decided,” “undecided,” and “in transition”: Implications for academic advisement, career counseling & student retention. In R.S. Feldman (Ed.). Improving the first year of college: Research and practice. (pp.27-48). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Gordon, V.N. (1995). The undecided college student: An academic and career advising challenge. (2nd ed.). Springfield, IL: Thomas.

Kramer, G.L., Higley, H.B., & Olsen, D. (1994). Changes in academic major among undergraduate students. College and University, 69(2), 88-98.

Lewallen, W.C. (1995). Students decided and undecided about career choice: A comparison of college achievement and student involvement. NACADA Journal, 15(1), 22-30.

Titley, R.W., & Titley, B.S. (1980). Initial choice of college major: Are only the “undecided” undecided? Journal of College Student Personnel, 21, 293-298.

Cite this article using APA style as: Spight, D. (2007, December). The impact of policies and environments upon undecided students . Academic Advising Today, 30(4). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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