Over the summer I had conversations with several students who have now just finished their first week at Beloit. We talked about a range of subjects including, of course, their interests both academic and outside of the classroom. Here was the great thing. All of them were wonderfully excited, engaged, and increasingly knowledgeable about a variety of subject and topic areas. And all of them were gloriously undecided about their future major. So, I will wear it on my sleeve, I really love our students, but there is a special place in my heart for students who are eager to learn while being full participants in the world around them, and who also wear their stubborn openness to new ways of thinking on their sleeves. Proudly undecided.
Enter a pretty important study that was just released a few weeks ago: Degrees at Work: Examining the Serendipitous Outcomes of Diverse Degrees, authored by Clare Coffey, Rob Sentz, and Dr. Yustina Saleh. Truth in advertising: My Commencement address this year was on the ways a Beloit education is a posterchild for how great colleges prepare you to recognize and take advantage of serendipitous opportunities, so I was drawn to this topic naturally. But, independent of my interests, this study made a pretty big splash. It did so because it drew from tens of thousands of career experiences of college graduates and demonstrated that college major was far less determinative of a career path than nearly anyone thought. It turns out that, intriguingly, non-linear career paths are vastly more common than linear ones. Now, this may not be incredibly revelatory to a Beloit College graduate, but it is to a huge fraction of the world.
Successful careers, as it turns out, are only relatively rarely determined substantially by the content embedded in a major. What does matter? Surely, a sophisticated ability to communicate to multiple audiences in multiple ways is at the top of the hit parade. There is massive depth to this last sentence as you know, which is why Beloit’s commitment to the substantial development of communication in virtually all courses is essential.
Not far behind is an eagerness and capacity for working with others. How often, almost ubiquitously, does the quality of our work benefit in important and surprising ways from lots of collaboration of various forms. Knowing when and how to move in and out of those collaborations; being a generous, careful, and discerning listener; being a creative synthesizer; being a smart interrogator; are all increasingly important in an increasingly complex world.
And, of course, the capacity for innovation and an entrepreneurial mindset is essential for meaningful contributions to your employer, but also for the communities in which you live, and the world that we must navigate. The ability to see problems that others only vaguely recognize; to see them through multiple lenses; and to innovate toward solutions is increasingly a hallmark of what matters in a 21st century world.
These skills then provide the intellectual platform from which college graduates can be professionally agile. These graduates own the complicated and sophisticated array of skills that marry exceptionally well with a serendipitous world. They are the secret sauce (yes, forgive me, I know I am using language overused on the reality TV show, Shark Tank) to lives of purposeful consequence.
Academic majors in this world are surely important—partly for content, but mostly because they are terrific tools for developing these core skills in very sophisticated ways.
Back to where I started. Let’s celebrate the fact that Beloit College is a world class college for the undecided high school graduate. That is exactly the type of student who will take full advantage of the development of essential skills that have been at the heart of a Beloit education for 173 years. Not full advantage only for the four years they are at Beloit, but full advantage throughout their lives.
Intentional serendipity. I hear it from our alumni every day and I celebrate its potential in every new student who matriculates. Especially when they arrive undecided.
From here at Chapin’s desk,
President Scott Bierman