Unpacking the Meta-Major Concept

Cornell University

A. Solano
As many institutions of higher education plan and implement Guided Pathways (mostly community colleges), there’s one term that tends to raise eyebrows or create confusion: meta-majors. I’ll unpack this term by using Cornell University as an example, then provide community college meta-major configuration examples. Some might be wondering why I would use an Ivy League University as an example for Guided Pathways. Bear with me. It will help provide context for understanding the meta-major concept.

Founded in 1865, Cornell had many “firsts.” It was one of the first universities to accept women and to create practical programs of study for the working class. Back then, the major universities focused on teaching Latin, Greek, the classics, etc., but Ezra Cornell had a more practical mindset about education. He stated, “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.” (It’s still Cornell’s official motto. Its unofficial motto is “an elite institution that isn’t elitist.”) Cornell is also the only Ivy to open its arms to community college student transfers (me included). Columbia University claims they do, but it’s with their School of Professional Studies. At Cornell, transfer students can apply directly to the university, and Cornell invests in personnel to outreach to community college students nationally. Now that I’ve shown my unabashed bias as a Cornellian and former re-entry community college transfer student, I also want to share the make-up of Cornell’s schools because they are a good example of the meta-major concept.

Cornell offers 90 formal undergraduate major fields housed within seven schools. A summary of the seven schools are as follows.

Here’s where the meta-major concept comes in. When I was at Cornell, each college had its own support system for students: admissions advisors, matriculation personnel, counselors, tutors, financial aid specialists, faculty advisors, etc. Cornell took specific programs of study and housed them under an area of interest (i.e., meta-major). At Cornell, they’re called schools or colleges. One could even call them “pathways.” The point is that while centralized structures are in place (e.g, university finances, human resources, facilities, technology, housing, libraries, student activities, etc.), each school has its own support system for students. Cornell is the largest of the Ivies with approximately 14,000 undergraduate students. Therefore, the university makes best efforts to make students feel like they are part of a close-knit community.

The term "meta-major" has been somewhat challenging to put our arms around (it was for me at first), but if you’re at a community college planning Guided Pathways, reflect on your own four-year undergraduate experience where perhaps there were schools within the institution with their own student support systems. You may find that the meta-major concept is familiar after all.

Here’s how Cornell configures their programs of study into areas of interest (i.e., schools).


If you’re at a community college planning Guided Pathways, reflect on your own four-year undergraduate experience where perhaps there were schools within the institution with their own student support systems. You may find that the meta-major concept is familiar after all. 

Cornell offers a traditional liberal arts education at the College of Arts & Sciences, and the other colleges group programs of study in contextualized areas of interest that meet specific needs of the marketplace. (I won’t even get into how other Ivy Leaguers, mostly from ice hockey-rival Harvard, poke fun at Cornell for having Hotel, Agriculture, and Labor schools…snobs).

I don’t want to give the impression that community colleges should simply mimic Cornell’s structure. In many ways, I think that community colleges are more complicated than four-year universities. Community colleges are tasked with providing open access to students, offering short-term certificates, workforce and economic development education, career and technical education, associates degrees, and transfer preparation. Each college will need to figure out how to best structure meta-majors with corresponding support systems for their context. Institutions also need to grapple with how existing centralized services will play a role in this continuous configuration. Yes, continuous. Educators who have implemented Guided Pathways have likened it to a house remodel or construction project. Once you think one piece is in place, you realize that it impacted another and it's time to go back to the drawing board. This is why the Design Team concept explained in the article, Guided Pathways: Starting on the Right Foot, is key. The Design Teams are charged with continually assessing and planning Guided Pathways implementation, and for providing recommendations based on data and input from administrators, faculty, staff, and students.

Here are five community college meta-major examples.

(Click on the college names for better viewing.)

Thanks to the Career Ladders Project for compiling meta-major examples







(Notice the salary information provided for students)






There’s so much to figure out with Guided Pathways: co-requisites, acceleration, multiple measures, application technology (e.g., CCC Apply), dual enrollment, renewed relationships with K12 and university partners, how to reconfigure student services with each meta-major, special programs and grants, and so on.

It’s critical to create a common language and understanding of concepts before jumping into implementation. I hope the examples provided help you to better understand the meta-major concept.

For related articles see:

Guided Pathways: Starting on the Right Foot

Guided Pathways: Good to Great?

Why I Spit Shine My Shoes (And How it Relates to Leadership)
It’s a metaphorical take on educational leadership. I tie in Guided Pathways at the end. Log on to your LinkedIn account to access the article.

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For a lovely video about Cornell, click here.


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