Choosing a College Major: What You Need to Know


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"Buridan's ass" is a well-known (and unfortunately named) philosophical paradox where a famished donkey sits equidistant between two similarly delicious bales of hay and, unable to find a rational reason to select one over the other, ultimately starves to death. Strangely enough, this rather absurd and morbid 14th-century tale is relevant to the dilemma faced by many college students today.

Never before in human history have young people had such an endless array of desirable career paths as they do in 21st-century America. The U.S. Department of Education currently recognizes over 1,500 academic programs offered by the nation's colleges and universities. These include everything from your run-of-the-mill liberal arts, social science, and STEM majors to your more unique upstart disciplines such as Blacksmithing (Southern Illinois University), Puppet Arts (UConn), and Race Track Management (U. of Arizona). Given this cornucopia of potential career paths, it is little surprise that settling on a major is a difficult enterprise.

The Age of Exploration

The concept of a four-year undergraduate degree is becoming an urban legend on the scale of Bigfoot and the Chupacabra. At non-flagship public institutions nationwide, only 19 percent of students graduate on-time. At flagship institutions, the number climbs to just 36 percent. Shockingly, the six-year graduation rate across all public and private colleges and universities in the United States is only 56 percent. There are a multitude of factors behind these abysmal numbers, but the process of settling on a major is right at the forefront.

Research tells us that the best laid plans of high school students frequently falter early into their post-secondary experience. It is estimated that 80 percent of college students will change their major at least once—the average student will switch a stunning three times before graduating. Even at Princeton University, a campus filled with some of the most driven and focused young people in the world, 70 percent of this elite student body elect to pull the old major switcheroo.

Let's pause to point out that switching a major is not inherently a bad thing, and is, in some cases, an unavoidable outcome. Not every high school senior can be expected to map out, irrevocably, hir or her entire academic and career path. It is perfectly normal for one's interests to shift and develop as new experiences unfold, and nothing is worse than sticking with an academic path you know is the wrong choice. As the saying goes, "It's better to be at the bottom of a ladder you want to climb than halfway up one that you don't."

While changing majors is inevitable for some, others end up abandoning their initial pathway due to poor planning, lack of information or following misguided outside influences. Math and Science departments tend to see the largest exodus as freshmen receive first and second semester grades far lower than anticipated. These students typically did not seek out the most rigorous options at their high school to ensure that they could handle college-level STEM coursework. Student pursuing a STEM field should avail themselves of AP opportunities and/or take courses at a local college through dual enrollment. Your first college-level course should not feel exponentially more challenging than those experienced in high school.

Another popular category of major-switchers selected their initial area of study for the wrong reasons. The majority of high students, almost two-thirds, select areas of study that do not match their interests—an extremely odd phenomenon and one that is ultimately counterproductive. Studies have repeatedly shown that students who pick a major in an area of high-interest are more likely to finish their degree in 4 years. Seems obvious enough, but many adolescents feel tremendous pressure from their parents to pursue economically viable and/or prestigious fields. Interest, passion, and enjoyment take a backseat to projected future salary. Yet, outside of a few fields, salary data based on your undergraduate major can be highly unpredictable.

Starting salary data

Articles ranking the highest-paying college majors are easy to find but are typically of little help in selecting a career. Take a quick glance at any such list, and you'll notice that just about all of the degrees producing the handsomest return on your tuition dollars end with the word "engineering." This is great news for anyone interested in becoming a petroleum, computer, chemical, civil, electronics, nuclear, mechanical, or electrical engineer and wholly irrelevant news for the other 99 percent of prospective college students. The fact that the average petroleum engineering major makes $103,000 right out of college does not mean that all you future humanities majors out there should abandon all of your former passions and immediately register for Fossil Fuels 101. Planning the extraction of crude oil from subsurface reservoirs may be lucrative, but it isn't for everyone.

It goes without saying that the decision on what to do with the next 40 plus years of your life should not be driven entirely by average starting salary figures. However, students should be cognizant of their post-graduate earning potential when selecting what type of school to attend. To ignore this factor can be a set-up for financial distress later in life — stress that with proper planning, could have easily been avoided.

College grads in the bottom quartile of earners actually make less than the average high school graduate. Some of the lowest paying majors include Early Childhood Education, Drama/Theater, Social Work, Library Science, and Psychology. Students entering these fields are wise to avoid incurring unnecessary debt in pursuit of their degrees. The same goes for graduates in STEM fields that do not typically lead to high-income positions right out of college. While engineering and computer science grads enjoy solid starting salaries, meteorology, biology, and zoology majors begin their careers paid below the median college grad. As stand-alone credentials, many undergraduate diplomas, even from elite schools, do not alone qualify someone for a high-paying professional job. It is in these situations that salary data broken down by college major becomes particularly hard to interpret.

Majors dependent upon grad school

Many bachelor's degrees have limited value on their own but can be parlayed into relatively lucrative careers through continuing one's education. Psychology is perhaps the ultimate example of this phenomenon. Those with bachelor's degrees in clinical or counseling psychology enter the field making less than $25,000 on average. Most will find entry-level employment in the behavioral/mental health field, working in positions such as a drug and alcohol counselor, probation officer, group home coordinator, or social worker.

While accounting majors can call themselves "accountants" upon graduation, psychology majors need to pursue advanced degrees to claim such a credential. Master's level psychologists will more than double-up their bachelor's-only peers and those who eventually earn a Psy.D. or Ph.D. will see average earnings above $75,000.

If you plan on entering a graduage school-dependent field, make sure you don't break the bank on your undergraduate education. Students with ambitions to enter fields such as law or medicine should prioritize undergraduate affordability and performance over prestige, given the costs of a professional degree and given the secondary role that college brand plays (to grades and test scores) in the graduate admissions process. Aspiring doctors and lawyers, along with would-be professors and scientists, should also realize that graduate credentials, not undergraduate name, will determine their job prospects.

Don't end up a starving donkey

As with any element of post-secondary planning, decisions about your college major should be made within the context of the bigger picture of your career and life goals. It's important to be aware of financial outcomes for graduates in your chosen area, but future salary considerations are often highly dependent on future educational attainment. Your own internal compass should guide the major selection process more than any outside voice.

When it comes to post-secondary choices, young people today possess a level of choice that would make Buridan's donkey's head explode. If you make your choice strategically and follow your instincts, you'll be able to successfully pick out the "bale of hay" that best fits into your life plan.

College Transitions is a team of college planning experts committed to guiding families through the college admissions process. As counselors and published higher education researchers, we aim to bring perspective (and some sanity) to college planning, and we strive to provide students with the support they need to enroll and succeed at a college that is right for them. Please visit our website—www.collegetransitions.com—to learn more.

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College Transitions

Expert advice for finding the right fit


About This Blog

College Transitions is a team of college planning experts committed to guiding families through the college admissions process. As counselors and published higher education researchers, we aim to bring perspective (and some sanity) to college planning, and we strive to provide students with the support they need to enroll and succeed at a college that is right for them. Learn more at collegetransitions.com

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March 2019

The Cary Kennel Club, Alamance Kennel Club, Durham Kennel Club, Raleigh Kennel Club and Fayetteville Kennel Club join forces to bring dog lovers a variety of dog competitions, obedience and rally...

Cost: $5/person

Where:
North Carolina Fairgrounds
1025 Blue Ridge Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Enjoy the museum's annual celebration of flowers. Purchase tickets online.

Cost: $13/members and $18/nonmembers. Free for ages 6 and younger

Where:
North Carolina Museum of Art
2110 Blue Ridge Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Telephone: 919-839-6262
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Join Mindful Families of Durham, a Buddhist-inspired spiritual community that supports area parents, caregivers, and their children in the practice of mindfulness and the understanding of the...

Cost: Free

Where:
Erwin Road
Durham, NC  27705
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Sponsor: Mindful Families of Durham
Contact Name: Adam, Laura, Josh, Sumi
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The Raleigh Boychoir will reach new heights as our choristers and community present Dr. Tim Sharp’s “High Lonesome Bluegrass Mass.” Welcoming area boys to perform in...

Cost: Free

Where:
First Baptist Church
99 N Salisbury St
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Sponsor: Raleigh Boychoir
Telephone: 919-881-9259
Contact Name: Erin O'Hara
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Join park staff on an easy hike to look for early wildflowers, blooming trees and singing birds. Learn how to identify some common spring species and enjoy the park as it comes to life!​...

Cost: FREE

Where:
Lake Crabtree County Park
1400 Aviation Pkwy.
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Lake Crabtree County Park
Telephone: 191-946-03355
Contact Name: Carol Cunningham
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Excite your neurons and discover brain science. Enjoy lab tours, a kids' corner, games and much more. Free and open to the public. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Duke Institute for Brain Sciences
Duke University
308 Research Dr.
Durham, NC  27708
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Ziggy is a shy boy who would rather stay at home and watch television than explore the island of Jamaica. Over the course of his onstage journey, with some help from his friend Nansi, he...

Cost: $18/adult, $12 ages 12 and younger

Where:
Raleigh Little Theatre
301 Pogue St.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Ages 6-9 years create a fairy house in the woods for a mouse, bug, toad or other woodland fairy. Natural materials provided, which participants can use to build the fairy house of their dreams...

Cost: $4

Where:
Wilkerson Nature Preserve
5229 Awls Haven Drive
Raleigh, NC  27614
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Sponsor: City of Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources
Telephone: 919-996-6764
Contact Name: Wilkerson staff
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Set in 1860’s Bangkok, the musical tells the story of the unconventional relationship that develops between the King of Siam and Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher whom the modernist...

Cost: $25 and up

Where:
Raleigh Memorial Auditorium
2 E. South St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Set in 1860’s Bangkok, the musical tells the story of the unconventional relationship that develops between the King of Siam and Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher whom the modernist...

Cost: $25 and up

Where:
Raleigh Memorial Auditorium
2 E. South St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Enjoy a fun-filled family- and dog-friendly event that starts at Carrboro Town Commons and winds through diverse neighborhoods and the UNC campus. The route measures about 4 miles but can be...

Cost: Free; optional t-shirt purchase/donation

Where:
Carrboro Town Commons
301 W. Main St.
Carrboro, NC  27510
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Sponsor: Interfaith Council for Social Services/Church World Service
Telephone: 919-942-6571
Contact Name: Mae McClendon
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Dan Breeding brings his beloved animals to Carrboro. 

Cost: $3/person

Where:
Century Center
100 N. Green St.
Carrboro, NC  27510
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Enjoy two Grimm's fairytales as told by youth musicians, actors, and artists with original music by R. Michael Daugherty. Presented by Philharmonic Assoc. Chamber Ensembles. Purchase...

Cost: $8/person

Where:
Cary Arts Center
101 Dry Ave.
Cary, NC  27511
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Using cutting edge lighting technology, Lightwire Theater brings the beloved story to life in a blaze of color. The result is an unforgettable theatrical experience blending electroluminescent...

Cost: $12/person. Free for ages 3 and younger.

Where:
Stewart Theatre, Talley Student Union
2610 Cates Ave.
Raleigh, NC
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Ziggy is a shy boy who would rather stay at home and watch television than explore the island of Jamaica. Over the course of his onstage journey, with some help from his friend Nansi, he...

Cost: $18/adult, $12 ages 12 and younger

Where:
Raleigh Little Theatre
301 Pogue St.
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Website »

More information

Ziggy is a shy boy who would rather stay at home and watch television than explore the island of Jamaica. Over the course of his onstage journey, with some help from his friend Nansi, he...

Cost: $18/adult, $12 ages 12 and younger

Where:
Raleigh Little Theatre
301 Pogue St.
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Website »

More information

Set in 1860’s Bangkok, the musical tells the story of the unconventional relationship that develops between the King of Siam and Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher whom the modernist...

Cost: $25 and up

Where:
Raleigh Memorial Auditorium
2 E. South St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Cost: Free

Where:
Millbrook Baptist Preschool
1519 East Millbrook Road
Raleigh, NC  27609
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Sponsor: Millbrook Baptist Preschool
Telephone: 919-876-4030
Contact Name: Suzanne Holleman
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Cost: $15 or use your package/membership

Where:
Kids Mindful Movement - Pittsboro
184 East St.
Pittsboro, NC  27312
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Cost: Free

Where:
Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Road
Apex, NC  27539
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Ages 5-13. Homeschool Yoga is a one-hour class designed to strengthen and stretch the entire body, balance the nervous system, improve body awareness. Weave in art and journaling before or after...

Cost: $15 or use class pass/membership

Where:
Kids Mindful Movement - Pittsboro
184 East Street
Pittsboro, NC  27312
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Ages 5-13 enjoy a one-hour yoga class designed to strengthen and stretch the entire body, balance the nervous system, improve body awareness, encourage the development of communication and social...

Cost: $15 or use class pass/membership

Where:
Kids Mindful Movement - Pittsboro
184 East St.
Pittsboro, NC  27312
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Ages 2-5 enjoy movement and mindfulness. Learn basic yoga elements through age-appropriate breath-work techniques, games, storytelling, and creative visualization and more.

Cost: $15/child, use your package/membership.

Where:
Kids Mindful Movement - Chapel Hill
781 Mt Carmel Church Rd
chapel hill, NC  27517
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Discover Historic Yates Mill—a place of business, community, and exciting local history! Watch a brief slideshow, then explore the inner workings of the mill itself and witness the power of water...

Cost: $5/Adult, $4/Senior (ages 60+), $3/Child (ages 7-16), Kids 6 & under are free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Dance 2 Get Fit is a high energy, calorie blasting dance fitness workout. Each dance routine is fun and exciting, yet easy to follow. The dance moves will target your hips, thighs and strengthen...

Cost: $5 per class

Where:
Sanderford Road Center
2623 Sanderford Road
Raleigh, NC  27610
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Sponsor: Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department
Telephone: 919-831-1898
Contact Name: Adam Sproles
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See Captain Jim perform magic and deliver a few words of wisdom. 

Cost: $3/person

Where:
Century Center
100 N. Green St.
Carrboro, NC  27510
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Connect with your baby, other parents and yourself during this adult-focused postpartum yoga class. Recommended for babies newborn to walking. Take a mat, a blanket for your little one, and...

Cost: $15 or use class pass/membership

Where:
Kids Mindful Movement - Pittsboro
184 East Street
Pittsboro, NC  27312
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Meet other families in your community in a recreation setting. The play room will be reserved for parents and their young children. Sports and recreation equipment will be available...

Cost: Free

Where:
Sanderford Road Center
2623 Sanderford Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27610
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Sponsor: Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department
Telephone: 919-831-1898
Contact Name: Adam Sproles
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Discover the joy of cooking with storybook characters. Ages 3-5 with parent. Register online. Choose course #120082.

Cost: $23/resident, $30/nonresident

Where:
Herbert C. Young Community Center
101 Wilkinson Ave.
Cary, NC
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This after-school class for kids in grades 3-5 offers fun learning yoga poses and mindfulness techniques to reduce stress. Grades 3-5. 

Cost: $15/class, or use your class pass/membership.

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Kids Mindful Movement - Chapel Hill
781 Mt. Carmel Church Rd.
Chapel Hill, NC  27517
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Parents learn help children with special needs build skills to encourage independence and confidence. Register online. Choose course #121426.

Cost: $11/resident, $15/nonresident

Where:
Cary Senior Center
120 Maury O'Dell Place
Cary, NC  27513
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Ages 11 and older with special needs enjoy a night of bingo, food and fun. Wear green clothing. Drinks and light snacks provided. Register online. Choose course #121060.

Cost: $2/resident, $3/nonresident

Where:
Cary Senior Center
120 Maury O'Dell Place
Cary, NC  27513
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Cost: $5 per class

Where:
Sanderford Road Center
2623 Sanderford Road
Raleigh, NC  27610
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Sponsor: Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department
Telephone: 919-831-1898
Contact Name: Adam Sproles
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Families with rising kindergartners or little ones hoping to get into early entry to stop by our informational fair for free kindergarten screenings and fun educational activities for...

Cost: Free

Where:
Wynns Family Psychology
130 Preston Executive Dr
Cary, NC  27513
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Sponsor: Wynns Family Psychology
Telephone: 919-467-7777
Contact Name: Kristen Wynns
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Read and Feed is an after-school literacy program that provides meals, tutoring and books to children from low-income families in Wake County. The Feed the Reader Breakfast is the...

Cost: $25

Where:
The Umstead Hotel
100 Woodland Pond Dr.
Cary, NC  27513
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Ages 15 and older with disabilities enjoy dancing, music, games and refreshments. Wear spring attire. Register online. 

Cost: $3

Where:
Century Center
100 N. Greensboro
Carrboro, NC  27510
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Enjoy popcorn with a family-friendly movie while being comfy in your pajamas. Refreshments provided.

Cost: Free

Where:
Sanderford Road Center
2623 Sanderford Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27610
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Sponsor: Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department
Telephone: 919-831-1898
Contact Name: Adam Sproles
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Enjoy fun, games, friendship and more every Friday.

Cost: Free

Where:
Sanderford Road Center
2623 Sanderford Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27610
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Sponsor: Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department
Telephone: 919-831-1898
Contact Name: Adam Sproles
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Cost: $25

Where:
Cary Hot Yoga
952 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC  27511
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Sponsor: Cary Hot Yoga
Telephone: 188-858-79530
Contact Name: hoa bui
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Go on a night hike with a park naturalist to test your sensory skills after dark. We’ll hike past the pond's edge and through forests, wetlands, and fields to discover what happens in these...

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Go behind the scenes at the veterinary school, get up close and personal with animals, and meet the faculty, staff and students who make our institution one of a kind. Animal lovers of all sizes...

Cost: Free; no registration required

Where:
NC State College of Veterinary Medicine
1060 William Moore Dr.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Sponsor: NC Stqte College of Veterinary Medicine
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Cost: Free

Where:
Ninth Street
Durham, NC  27705

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Widow's Son Lodge #4, is hosting an annual free community health fair. Area health care provider and services are organized in one larger location to offer free screenings, information, one on...

Cost: Free

Where:
First Cosmopolitan Baptist Church
1515 Cross Link Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27610
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Sponsor: Widow's Son Lodge #4
Telephone: 252-367-7111
Contact Name: James Purington
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Discover the fascinating world of pond critters by scooping in the pond to observe who lives there up close. View some of the tiniest critters under a microscope. All ages with...

Cost: Free

Where:
Harris Lake County Park
2112 County Park Dr.
New Hill, NC  27562
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Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park
Telephone: 919-387-4342
Contact Name: Joanne St. Clair
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Cost: $5/Adult, $4/Senior (ages 60+), $3/Child (ages 7-16), kids ages 6 & under: free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Larger-than-life puppets and the North Carolina Symphony bring the animal kingdom to life for a performance of Saint-Saëns’ magnificent music. Purchase tickets online.

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Meymandi Concert Hall
2 E. South St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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*This sensory-friendly performance is designed especially for individuals with autism spectrum disorders, sensory sensitivities or other disabilities. Ziggy is a shy boy who...

Cost: $18/adult, $12 ages 12 and younger

Where:
Raleigh Little Theatre
301 Pogue St.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Talented dance students present "Swan Lake Act II". Purchase tickets online for either the 2 p.m. or 7 p.m. show.

Cost: $15 in advance, $18 at the door

Where:
Fletcher Opera Theater
2 E. South St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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See talented dance students perform their spring repertoire in "Swan Lake Act II". Purchase tickets online for either the 2 p.m. or 7 p.m. performance.

Cost: $15 advance tickets, $18 at the door

Where:
Fletcher Opera Theater
2 E. South St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Website »

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Larger-than-life puppets and the North Carolina Symphony bring the animal kingdom to life for a performance of Saint-Saëns’ magnificent music. Purchase tickets online.

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Meymandi Concert Hall
2 E. South St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Website »

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The Triangle Rock Paper Scissors Showdown is a bracket-style competition of the age-old game we all know and love. Teams of 4 will compete head-to-head to decide whether throwing a risky rock,...

Cost: $100/team of 4 ($25 per person), VIP: $400/team of 4 ($100 per person)

Where:
Big Boss Brewing Company
1249 Wicker Dr., Ste. A
Raleigh, NC  27604
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Sponsor: Learning Together
Telephone: 919-856-7453
Contact Name: Colleen McDevitt
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Talented dance students present "Swan Lake Act II". Purchase tickets online. 

Cost: $15 in advance, $18 at the door

Where:
Fletcher Opera Theater
2 E. South St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Website »

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