College Major Declaration Policies: How China Can Improve

By Tianyi Tan

Fresh writing   cover image

Photograph by Tianyi Tan

As an international student studying in the United States, I have always been amazed at the freedom and time granted in the major declaration procedure and the ease of changing majors at any time. In sharp contrast, Chinese college students have to declare their majors even before they enter their universities, and usually top students are the only ones allowed to change majors. Differences in college major declaration policies expose the significant distinctions underlying educational beliefs of Chinese and U.S. colleges – namely, professional specialization and liberal arts education. In this research paper, I want to explore how these two policies have come into shape and how they influence student development in a broader sense. Based on a close examination and comparison of Chinese and U.S. college major declaration policies, I believe a middle ground can be found, which would improve Chinese higher education so as to enhance the nation's global competence. To make the improvement feasible, this new hybrid Chinese higher education model must be a careful combination of liberal arts and specialized education.

With that goal in mind, my essay has four main sections: 1) comparison of the systems of Chinese and US colleges; 2) historical analysis of Chinese major declaration policies development; 3) the influence of major declaration policies in higher education; and 4) analysis of current situations in China for possible improvement measures. My discussion will be drawn from academic articles, lectures, and my own observations. While a vast amount of academic articles have discussed higher education in both countries in a broader sense, my personal observation as a college student will provide a more detailed perspective of the major declaration policies in particular.

I. Differences in Current Major Declaration Policies of Chinese and U.S. Colleges

Various differences in the college major declaration policies of Chinese and U.S. colleges lead to two distinctive educational systems. These different systems inevitably bring about greatly divergent curriculums that reflect different educational beliefs.

The whole design of the major declaration process in Chinese colleges puts more restrictions on students. To elaborate on its restrictive nature, we may roughly divide the process into two parts: before college and in college. Surprising as it may sound, the Chinese college major declaration is usually completed even before students are accepted into certain universities. Instead, the process and relevant policies are closely knitted with the National College Entrance Exam (NCEE). Commonly known as Gaokao, this annual examination is a prerequisite for entrance into almost all higher education institutions at the undergraduate level, and the exam is usually taken by students in their senior year of high school. While procedural variations exist in different provinces, the two- or three-day NCEE is administered uniformly each year in June. In different places, students list their university or college preferences prior to the exam, after the exam, or after they have learned their scores. However, one requirement of the college choice declaration is consistent across regions: students must simultaneously indicate their major preferences. For example, a student who lists Tsinghua University on his declaration form must also pick out several specific majors he wants to enroll in. Consequently, offers from universities come along with one of those declared majors according to the student's NCEE scores. In other words, the typical major declaration process is completed before students officially matriculate in their final universities. Specific academic departments, instead of universities in general, offer students their places. As shown in Figure 1 below, boxes numbered "1" to "6" are for indicating majors.

  • Depicts the format of the NCEE Declaration Form
    Figure 1. Sample NCEE Declaration Form (Partial)

To make the process even more complex, the NCEE declaration form usually has a column (circled in Figure 1) asking, "Are you subject to major changes?" A "yes" in this column means the student agrees to be assigned a major other than those she has indicated on the form in situations where she reached the admission score of the university, but not that of her preferred majors. Universities will often assign a major that still has available seats for students who choose to be subject to major changes. Those who refuse to accept university-assigned majors will then directly be placed into the next university on the list, where they satisfy the lowest admission score requirements of both the university and their preferred departments. Apparently a "yes" can increase the student's chance of being accepted into her preferred university. Yet this option also furthers the restriction placed on students by having their declared majors subject to changes by admission offices.

The modes of NCEE also contribute to the restriction on major declaration procedures. With slight variations, students taking the NCEE have to choose from several science and humanities disciplines in addition to the compulsory subjects, i.e. Chinese literature, mathematics and a foreign language (usually English). Yet the additional subject(s) may limit the student's opportunities regarding university choices or, at least, major choices. For instance, a student who chooses biology as the additional subject is almost denied his chance of getting into the top-ranking Tongji University. Other universities also have, to various extents, restrictive admission policies regarding the additional subjects.

While the restrictions resulting from the design of NCEE are evident, what truly makes college major declaration a binding, and thus confining, process in China is that changing majors is often an extremely hard and daunting process. Generally, only top students are allowed to compete for the few chances of changing their majors. There is a reason behind this seemingly absurd policy: students are motivated to keep working hard and take on responsible attitudes for their own education. Had the changing-major policies been designed in the opposite way, with low-ranking students allowed to change majors, we can infer that students longing for major changes may compete for the bottom grades in order to change majors and thus waste their precious first college year. In addition, if all students are allowed to change majors, there may very likely be some chaos in colleges, given the huge student body in nearly every Chinese university. However reasonable this particular policy may be, though, we cannot deny that it puts great restriction on students.

Restrictive major declaration procedures consequently create a more specialized curriculum in most Chinese universities. As mentioned above, students enter directly into specific departments in their first year. Few general courses are required and/or offered except for physical education and political philosophy, focusing mainly on Marxism and other socialistic concepts. In other words, there is truly not a general education or core curriculum in Chinese colleges. Last but not least, most major requirements are extremely detailed and thus leave small space for students to pursue many elective courses outside their declared majors. In most cases, a clear and definite path has already been laid out for every specific academic major, from the very beginning to the final senior year.

U.S. colleges are in sharp contrast to China with regard to major declaration process and, consequently, their curriculum designs, which grant far more freedom and time to students regarding their major decisions. While most of the major declaration process is completed in college, it is also closely related to the application process. Students do declare specific colleges or even majors in their college applications, but these claims are only taken as intentions and they are non-binding. Exceptions exist only for highly specialized colleges, such as architecture and business schools. Formal declaration of majors usually takes place by the end of the freshman year when students have had numerous chances to explore different academic disciplines and departments. Yet even the "formal" declarations are not half as restrictive as that of Chinese universities. Changing majors is much easier and, under most circumstances, all that is required is some paper work and a conversation with an advisor for approval that is often granted.

Behind this completely distinctive procedure lies a deeply rooted American educational ideal: liberal arts education. Thus, the college curriculums focus more on a general education of students. Many freshmen in U.S. universities are placed into colleges exclusively designed for their first year of studies. The FYS program at University of Notre Dame is one perfect example to illustrate the point of this approach: "…to provide the newest members of our Notre Dame family the opportunity to become thoroughly informed about the University and the many educational options we provide before they make a very important decision — what their college and major will be" (FYS). Even if students are not placed into a specific first year studies program, general courses are provided regardless of students' potential majors. In addition, university requirements spread across several different disciplines, including the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and mathematics. It must be clarified that even with various university requirements and major requirements, students are still encouraged and given enough freedom to choose numerous electives that interest them.

Based on these comparisons, we can safely conclude that Chinese undergraduate education features a more restrictive and specialized curriculum, while U.S. colleges typically grant considerable freedom to students, particularly during the major declaration process.

II. Historical and Cultural Facts Shaping the Contemporary Chinese Higher Education

To understand how Chinese higher education takes on such a specialized (and therefore restrictive) path, it is crucial to examine several historical and cultural factors that have not only shaped contemporary education models, but also the society as a whole.

The communist character of Chinese government has led to various shifts that directly shape today's Chinese higher education. After the communist party gained power in 1949, higher education and many other social institutions were adopted into a central planning system. Those esteemed private universities established during the beginning years of 20th century were transformed into national public institutions and thus became subject to government supervision and administration. This loss of independence brought about the most significant changes in the history of Chinese higher education. As William C. Kirby noted in his article on Chinese higher education:

…Tsinghua, like most institutions of higher learning, was Sovietized. It became a polytechnic university to train engineers. The schools of sciences and humanities, agriculture, and law were all abolished, and their faculty members were dispersed to other institutions (Kirby 147).

Tsinghua University was just one example of the incredible government intervention on higher education institutions, where the original integrated or all-around objectives were forced to change into confined specialization for the sake of efficiency and "the people's need." Another notable trend in the educational reorganization was the emphasis laid on science and technology (and thus the neglect towards humanities, which are often considered the core of a liberal arts education). The communist government at that time also designated specific colleges and majors for students who were outstanding enough to get into universities. There did not even exist any major declaration procedures, since the government paid for their education in order to "harvest" particular types of educated professionals.

As China entered the industrialized process and an increasingly globalized market, the inclination towards natural sciences was even further emphasized. Years after the huge reorganization, in 1978, Chairman Deng Xiaoping launched the "reform and opening up" project on a national level. One of the guiding ideologies of this project aiming to boost Chinese economic growth was, "Science and technology constitute a primary production force" (Deng). In reality, though, the general Chinese society overemphasized this single production force to transform it from "primary" to nearly "only." Never once had the Chinese society shifted its focus so much towards natural sciences. This shift dismissed the previously glorious humanities as almost merely "decorative," if not completely "useless," for a nation with urgent desire of economic development and a transition from an agricultural society to a modern, highly industrialized country. The liberal arts that advocate cultivation of a better character seems out of place in the extremely pragmatic modern Chinese society. Educationally, this pragmatism has also been expressed in narrow, technical specialization (Curry 225). With heavy pressure from development and now the competition of job markets, people naturally do not favor a college education that seemingly teaches nothing necessary for vocational purposes.

The enormous population of China poses great challenges to higher education with limited resources as well. As most top tier universities are sponsored by the government, they naturally strive to maximize their funding opportunities by responding to "the need" of the nation so as to accommodate the rapidly growing student body. While the Chinese government nowadays does not put as much restriction or supervision on universities as it used to in mid-20th century, it still exercises a great influence on higher education with this funding relationship. A more specialized curriculum pattern is indeed easier to pursue, for universities do not have to allocate already strained resources to an integrated undergraduate education that is completely different from graduate programs and their research nature. This limitation of resources does not favor the frequent major changes prevalent in U.S. colleges as well. For example, a considerable financial input is required for University of Notre Dame to provide strong and necessary advising service for undecided students via advisors.

Last but not least, secondary education in China does somewhat provide liberal education (though not in a perfect form), which remedies the lack of it in colleges. With compulsory curriculum covering various areas from biological science and geography to literature and history, students do explore distinctive academic disciplines. The much critiqued examination system (not giving students the choice, for example, to take exams only in their strong fields) also helps to ensure that high school students take every subject seriously regardless of their personal preferences. Also, the college admission system is undergoing a reform that puts an unprecedented emphasis on the all-around academic development of students; in other words, their performance over all subjects are adopted as one determinant criterion.

In short, various historical and cultural forces have contributed to the current Chinese college system. They grant the system rationality, yet also are a major impediment to reforms.

III. The "Professional Specialization vs. Liberal Arts Education" Debate

The contrast between Chinese and U.S. higher education as a result of their different major declaration policies is parallel to the "Professional Specialization vs. Liberal Education" debate that has been around in U.S. higher education field for decades.

The advantages of a liberal arts education appear in nearly every U.S. college mission statement, so frequently that they almost become cliché. For instance, the College of Arts and Letters at University of Notre Dame has on its homepage the following statement: "We believe that the most important decision a student can make is to pursue their intellectual interests while in college, using this rare opportunity to explore questions of great meaning and to develop the writing, analytical, and speaking skills nurtured especially well within the liberal arts." A liberal arts education, in short, features the cultivation of a student's character as a whole. While people argue over whether this education mode is suitable for everyone given the increasingly competitive job markets, we may still confidently assume that these advantages of the liberal arts education are well celebrated. While there are debates over the value of liberal arts education in the U.S., I do not have enough room for a closer discussion in the scope of this paper.

On the contrary, both the restrictive academic policies and the specialized educational ideal behind them prevalent in Chinese universities have valuable advantages that are mentioned far less frequently than their perceived faults. While the professional specialization beginning from the undergraduate years apparently provides students with more job-related skills, there are still further benefits. The early specialization enables students to take on certain subjects that require great commitment of both time and energy. As Professor Allitt notes in Should Undergraduates Specialize, "it enabled us to learn one discipline really well, to become far more deeply engaged with it than was possible for our American counterparts. It gave a marvelous opportunity to students who already knew where they were going to pursue their ambitions without distraction" (Allitt). The fact that Chinese universities are producing more engineers and scientists than their U.S. counterparts (Chan) illustrates some form of success. In addition, legal studies and business education are widely available in undergraduate programs for determined students so that they do not waste four years studying less preferred majors. Students are placed on a clear path that ensures them a full development utilizing their departments' resources; in contrast, frequent changes of majors may impair their chances to acquire a consistent and in-depth education within four years. Last but not least, Chinese students are exempted from certain courses that may cause great learning difficulties, while a U.S. student can hardly skip courses because of the unanimous core curriculum requirements.

Even the restrictive nature of the major declaration procedures does some good by forcing students into serious consideration about their future that can never be too early. With a firm decision on majors required (and hard to change anyway), students experience less sense of loss at the various opportunities in colleges. Setting up minds for specific majors often results in frustration and confusion and tend to take more than necessary amount of time when students are allowed longer decision period. Chinese college students, however, get this extremely challenging process out of the way before they begin the supposedly wonderful college years. Secondly, as their major decisions are mostly fixed once made, students learn to take responsibilities for their own decisions and to get used to making serious decisions at an early stage. Filling out the NCEE preference form has been, as one of my high school classmates, who ended up in Tsinghua University, said, "the most important and meaningful task in life so far." An 18-year-old can gain from the (probably torturing) experience some essential decision-making techniques: weighing pros and cons, risk assessment, risk taking, and firmness about the decisions once made. My classmates have gone through thick catalogues listing past years' admission scores and specific analysis of each major's prospects, talked to counselors, admission officers, peers and parents, taken tentative tests, and so on. It is safe to say that this particular declaration process is one of the most sophisticated decisions people face in their whole life. It is not impossible to imagine that the freedom and time granted to U.S. college students allows them to procrastinate committing to a major and pursuing a concentrated academic path in the precious undergraduate years.

IV. Possible Balance-Point Improvements

Following our discussion over advantages and disadvantages of current major declaration policies in China and the resulting professional specialization, we can see that improvements are necessary. Yet improvements will not be feasible and desirable if they are to abandon the whole current system and to simply adopt a Western liberal arts model of education.

An adoptable balance point, as mentioned above, will have to be on the spectrum of professional specialization and liberal arts education. In other words, successful reforms will be a careful combination of both U.S. and Chinese education styles if we want to avoid narrow depth and shallow breadth (Schneider). Liberal arts education and professional specialization are not mutually exclusive, since, in their most basic sense, they are both attempting to offer students the most suitable and beneficial education. While detailed projects should be planned by professionals, two general directions may be helpful in improving Chinese higher education for stronger competence in a globalized world. The first approach will be to offer both paths in the universities, as suggested by Professor Allitt: "let's get rid of the idea that liberal arts is for everyone" (Allitt). The same applies to early specialization. As higher education is meant to offer every individual an opportunity to choose his or her own career path, we should not let major declaration hinder the freedom in either way, e.g., not allowing students to focus from the start or requiring unanimous early commitment.

One specific way to realize this objective is to establish an independent college adopting liberal arts education within the already-existing university system, which saves universities the daunting work of revising the whole system. Another method could be blending the idea of liberal education into the already well-developed specialization programs, which is actually most attempted by Chinese universities looking for changes nowadays. Leading Chinese universities are developing American-style programs of general education and in the process they have sought international advice, support, and models (Kirby 151). Difficulties clearly exist in both approaches, but the current internationalization trends in the Chinese education field will help push undergraduate education reforms toward a more effective place. As Chinese Ministry of Education is busy planning substantial reforms of NCEE to adopt a more holistic evaluation, the inseparable major declaration policies are bound to change and thus influence Chinese education across all levels.


To rise is not necessarily to lead. As China enters an unprecedentedly globalized world with an aspiration to lead, its higher education will be the key force shaping the young elites and future leaders. But China's restrictive major declaration policies, as a result of historical central planning, bring about a particularly specialized college education that collides with typical Western liberal arts education. While the great differences (including major restriction policies) are not total disadvantages of a Chinese higher education, universities are seeking reforms so as to provide a more beneficial and globally competitive education. I believe that it is the cooperation and interplay of the liberal arts with vocation-specific training that holds the most promise (Halisky). As government administrators are making plans for educational reforms, NCEE and college major declaration policies will be good starting points, which can be greatly influential if carefully designed.