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You Majored in What?

The Pope Center tracked down ten of the strangest college majors in the country.

By Duke Cheston

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September 25, 2012

“What did you major in?” I’ve probably heard that question a thousand times and asked it a thousand times myself. Sometimes the answers are impressive, sometimes the answers are less so, calling for a polite smile and change of subject.

But every once in a while the answer triggers a double-take—“You majored in what?” Below is a list of those kinds of academic programs: the strangest undergraduate majors you’ve probably never heard of.

First, however, a caveat: to say that they are strange is not necessarily to say that they aren’t worth studying or you won’t get a job if you choose a strange major. In fact, by obtaining a specialized degree, you will have credentials that few others have. That may enable you to land a well-paying job and come out ahead of all those people with “normal” majors, not to mention having something interesting to talk about at dinner parties.

Here are my top ten weird majors.

1)   Canadian Studies

A wag once compared Canada to “the apartment above a really great party,” but that doesn’t mean the place isn’t worth studying. At Duke University here in North Carolina, students may select Canadian Studies as a second major. Since founding the program (which receives some funding from the Canadian national and Quebecois provincial governments), Duke has produced over 100 Ph.D.s whose work has focused on Canada.

2)   Espionage Engineering

Was it your dream as a kid to be a real-life “Q,” like in those old James Bond movies, designing clever ways to make seemingly harmless objects into deadly weapons? Well, you may not get a chance to design laser-watches, but at Liberty University in Virginia you can major in Electrical Engineering with Intelligence Specialization, which is probably about as close to Bond-like gadgets as you’ll be able to get with a four-year degree.

3)   PGA Golf Management

At Methodist University in Fayetteville, NC, students can enroll in the PGA Golf Management Program. Essentially a specialized business degree, the program promises to equip students to “pursue a career as a golf professional in the private or public sector, resort or corporate golf structure, administration, club management, turf management or industry representative.”

4)   Equine Studies

Love horses? Consider enrolling in an Equine Studies program such as the one at Johnson & Wales University’s Providence, RI campus. Although this may sound like an odd course of study, there are actually a number of colleges that offer equine studies programs—so many, in fact, that there is a website devoted to ranking schools based on their equine studies programs. According to HorseSchools.com, Olds College in Alberta, Canada holds the notable distinction of having the greatest horse-to-student ratio.

5)   Fermentation Science

If you want to make a career out of brewing and/or drinking beer or wine, Appalachian State University in Boone, NC has the program for you. But don’t drink too much while you’re taking the program; to obtain a degree, students must acquire a “a strong background in chemistry and biology” while also learning a “considerable” amount about “business, marketing and entrepreneurial principles.”

6)   Motorsports Management

Like Will Ferrell’s character in the movie Talladega Nights, Belmont Abbey College’s Motorsports Management Program was born wanting to go fast. For students pursuing “business careers in the multi-billion motorsports industry,” the program promises to help you get there through “partnerships with sanctioning bodies, teams, tracks, media, sponsors, agencies and attractions.

7)   Bagpiping

Yes, Bagpiping. Keeping true to its roots—founder Andrew Carnegie was born in Dunfermline, Scotland—Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania offers its students the chance to major or minor in playing the bagpipes.

8)   Theme Park Engineering

Can’t get enough of theme park rides? Try designing them yourself with a degree in Theme Park Engineering from California State University-Long Beach! It’s not all fun and games, though. The degree is generally only available as a second major, and students are required to take many classes in electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and civil engineering.

9)   Jazz Studies

Given the title’s similarity to certain other academic departments, you might at first glance think that Jazz Studies is about the grievances of a historically oppressed minority group. Happily, it is not—at least not primarily. According to Michigan State University’s official website, students who major in Jazz Studies will “develop a high level of competency in jazz performance, and in compositional, scoring, and arranging skills;” they will also become familiar with the “historical and cultural context of jazz.”

10) Poultry Science

Ever wanted to know how that juicy chicken sandwich arrived at your dinner plate? NC State University’s Poultry Science major may be for you. NC State University students and alumni may object that Poultry Science is not a particularly strange major and ought not be included in this list, but, I mean, come on—their band plays “Old Macdonald Had a Farm” at basketball games. (Commence angry comments now).

At this point, you may be asking: Why should we care about weird majors?

Well, for one thing, it’s an occasion to ponder what American higher education might look like if it were a truly free market for education. If state, federal, and local governments did not subsidize colleges and universities, would they still include such unusual majors?

My Pope Center colleagues Jane Shaw and George Leef pondered what a free market in higher education would look like, and they argued that it is the only way to find out which programs, from philosophy to plumbing, are really worthwhile. Unusual majors (as well as common ones) might survive, but only if they provided enough value for students who were spending their own money.

It also gives us occasion to contemplate the age-old question of the purpose of higher education.

Most of these odd majors seem odd due to their specificity—they are tied to a career. Is it right that they should be? Some would argue that the proper venue for such vocational training is not a university but a technical school or community college. Vocational training at a university, they say, crowds out liberal education and students are left with a narrower perspective than a real college graduate ought to have.

Perhaps, but as those equine studies majors could probably tell you, you can lead a horse to water but can’t make it drink. If people are only interested in education and training that leads to a good career, it does very little good to make them study the humanities at the same time. Maybe they will want to do that later, or in a different setting than college.

In education, let a thousand flowers bloom. Some of them may seem strange to most of us, but that’s all right. If someone wants to major in bagpipes, that’s fine as long as I don’t have to either listen to the performer or help pay for his studies.

 


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