Picking Your College Major Hogwarts Style

If students at one Chinese university got to choose their majors, some classes would be too crowded. The solution: something along the lines of the Harry Potter sorting hat.

Wizard hats are worn at the launch of one of the 'Harry Potter' books in a Singapore Borders in 2005. (Wong Maye-E/ AP )

As many as half of all undergraduates in the United States don’t know what their major will be when they enroll in college. As the scholar Eric St. John once wrote, “There is, perhaps, no college decision that is more thought-provoking, gut wrenching and rest-of-your-life oriented—or disoriented—than the choice of a major.”

Today’s “undecided” students, however, are by no means wearing that label like a scarlet letter; rather, it’s often seen as a symbol of whimsical youth, of spontaneous self-discovery, of a Tolkien-esque desire to explore: “Not all those who wander are lost” Well, sort of.

In reality, for many students checking off the “undeclared” box when applying to college probably has more to do with instability or apathy or inexperience—but the point is, at least in The Land of Opportunity, undeclared students are ominipresent in lecture halls and dining halls, Solo-cup showdowns and awkward-dorm-sex moments. Some academics see undeclared majors as the epitome of Deweyan education, the last vestiges of America’s one-time liberal-arts sensibility. Indeed, a study from the 1960s study found that undeclared majors were “more likely to emphasize intellectual development as a goal of college” than they were vocational training. And regardless, it’s worth noting that an estimated three in four college students change majors at least once.

But this entire debate is pointless when neither decision nor indecision is even an option. That’s now the case for hundreds of students at the University of South China, which according to a number of news outlets has essentially barred those who are in their second year of the school’s civil-engineering program from selecting their specialties; the program is broken down into seven of them.

Instead, the university—which according to its website offers dozens undergraduate majors in fields ranging from engineering to the liberal arts and serves a growing international population—is forcing all but the program’s top 190 students to choose their majors Harry Potter-style: picking them, as the lifestyle blog Shanghaiist put it, “out of a hat.” Okay, the new policy doesn’t involve a literal hat—but it’s still a lottery-like system that one legal worker, according to the Wall Street Journal, described as “a game for kids in kindergarten.”

Shanghaiist quotes a university spokesperson, Lu Qinghua, offering an earnest and amusingly simple rationale for the school’s widely criticized move: It didn’t have a choice. “If choosing a major is solely based on students’ wants, some majors will be overcrowded and others will have difficulty enrolling enough students,” Lu reportedly said, adding that other institutions have adopted similar policies and that among the 400 or so students who have to leave their majors to fate, the highest achievers can apply to change their specializations after a year of study. People are, of course, pissed, blasting the decision on the Internet and in the news media. Someone quoted by Xinhua said the rule amounts to “discrimination,” while the aforementioned legal worker criticized it as “the product of laziness and mismanagement.”

There’s little doubt that colleges in China (and pretty much everywhere) struggle to keep course enrollments perfectly balanced and workforces perfectly distributed. That’s in large part a byproduct of humanity’s imperfection and what happens when, God forbid, young adults are allowed to study subjects in which they’re interested. Some colleges simply expand course offerings when there’s heightened interest; some form partnerships with third-party institutions or academic programs. And globally, the degree to which students have discretion over their area of specialization varies. Certain countries, for example, in the past have set quotas on the numbers of students who pursue higher education in certain disciplines based on workforce demands.

At lots of U.S. colleges, efforts to avoid problems with supply and demand are, of course, often stymied by bureaucratic dysfunction. And on the reverse, there are certainly some overzealous efforts to diversify offerings. Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus’s book, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids, lists some of the more, er, niche bachelor’s degrees offered by some American postsecondary institutions in 2008, including: Equine science and management; poultry science; and fiber, textile, and weaving arts. I wonder what an aspiring business major might say if he or she were forced to specialize in the horse industry because there were too many people signing up for Macroeconomics 101.

Of course, China isn’t known for being particularly compromising when it comes to solving its higher-ed pickles: In 2011, the country’s Ministry of Education notoriously announced that it would be canceling all majors that didn’t produce employable graduates—largely programs that didn’t accommodate the country’s export- and manufacturing-based economy. I’m not sure how that plan has played out, but it’s clear that prioritizing the most employable disciplines can be tricky business—and, at least with prestigious U.S. universities, often inconsequential. I know of a former Harvard Folklore & Mythology major, for example, who’s now a successful Wall Street consultant. After all, only about a fourth of college grads in the country have a job related to their major.

I’m no expert on Chinese higher ed, but whoever decided to address the University of South China’s civil-engineering qualms as if it were Hogwarts House-sorting time seems, well, a tad misguided.

Perhaps the kerfuffle at University of South China is emblematic of the reason why postsecondary education in the United States—despite all its administrative shortcomings and financial crises and political mayhem—has yet to lose its spark. Why higher learning is still one of America’s “hottest exports.” Why the country is now attracting hordes China’s nouveau riche—not just those pursuing the “American Dream.” Sometimes, indecision is a luxury.