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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About this Blog

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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Calendar

September 2018

Run Club meets every Sunday at 8 a.m. in Midtown Raleigh or Wake Forest. Stroller friendly; children invited. 

Cost: $10/run or $100/annual pass

Where:
Optimist Park Community Center/Greenways
5900 Whittier Drive
Raleigh, NC  27609
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Sponsor: FIT4MOM
Telephone: 919-348-0472
Contact Name: Missy Currin
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Due to inclement weather, this event has been canceled. Children make treasured memories while increasing their knowledge of plants and animals. Ages 7-10. Register online.

Cost: $8/resident, $10/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
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Telephone: 919-387-5980
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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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Enjoy a street arts festival located in Durham’s historic city center that showcases 145 juried visual artists from across the U.S. and 600 performing artists from North Carolina. Food,...

Cost: $5 suggested donation

Where:
Downtown Durham
120 Morris St.
Durham, NC  27701
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Step back in time with our 19th-century costumed interpreters and watch the millstones at work grinding corn into meal. Tours are offered every 20 minutes beginning at 1 p.m. Reservations are...

Cost: $5 for Adults $4 for Seniors (ages 60 & over) $3 for Children (ages 7–16)* *Ch

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Telephone: 919-856-6675

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Tour the farm, spend time with farmers who care about the environment and meet friendly animals. Tickets must be purchased online; the farm is not open for drop-ins.

Cost: $10/person

Where:
Hux Family Farm
1923 Shaw Rd.
Durham, NC  27704
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Sunday, Sept. 16, 1–5 p.m. Learn how farmers harvested crops such as wheat before the invention of mechanized harvesters, try threshing wheat by hand and make a craft to take home!

Cost: free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Telephone: 919-856-6675

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Celebrate Latino culture with live bands, food trucks, dance performances, face painting, a pinata giveaway, crafts and more.

Cost: Free

Where:
Garner Performing Arts Center
125 Avery St.
Garner, NC  27529
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Take the family for live entertainment, food vendors, rides, hands-on activities, local talent performances, a car show, concerts and more. See website for hours.

Cost: Free

Where:
Downtown Clayton
E. Main St.
Clayton, NC  27520
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Sharon O'Donnell discusses her new book and tell humorous and poignant stories of having a child at 38.

Cost: Free

Where:
Barnes & Noble
760 S.E. Maynard Rd.
Cary, NC  27511
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PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Ken Ludwig's Sherwood: The Adventures of Robin Hood, a rip-roaring romp through Sherwood Forest with all the thrills and romance you could ever...

Cost: $12-$57

Where:
PlayMakers Repertory Company
120 Country Club Road
Chapel Hill, NC  27599
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Sponsor: PlayMakers Repertory Company
Telephone: 703-850-2282

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Children with special needs make a creamy vegetable curry. Ages 11 and older. Register online. Choose course #116721.

Cost: $19/resident, $24/nonresident

Where:
Herbert C. Young Community Center
101 Wilkinson Ave.
Cary, NC  27513
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PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Ken Ludwig's Sherwood: The Adventures of Robin Hood, a rip-roaring romp through Sherwood Forest with all the thrills and romance you could ever...

Cost: $12-$57

Where:
PlayMakers Repertory Company
120 Country Club Road
Chapel Hill, NC  27599
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Sponsor: PlayMakers Repertory Company
Telephone: 703-850-2282

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Read the story by John Parker, sing a spider song and pretend to be a spider before taking a short walk to mist spider webs and to see who’s home.  Ages 18 months-3 years with...

Cost: $2/child

Where:
Blue Jay Point County Park
3200 Pleasant Union Church Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27614
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Website »

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PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Ken Ludwig's Sherwood: The Adventures of Robin Hood, a rip-roaring romp through Sherwood Forest with all the thrills and romance you could ever...

Cost: $12-$57

Where:
PlayMakers Repertory Company
120 Country Club Road
Chapel Hill, NC  27599
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Sponsor: PlayMakers Repertory Company
Telephone: 703-850-2282

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Wednesday, Sept. 19, 10–11 a.m.** All great inventions start out as merely ideas, and some even happen by accident. Hear invention stories, including the story of Oliver Evans, who invented the...

Cost: $4/child

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Telephone: 919-856-6675
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Do you have what it takes to be a History Detective? Come to Yates Mill and find out! Solve puzzles, hunt for clues, and investigate the mystery of milling with real historical artifacts inside the...

Cost: $5 for Adults $4 for Seniors (ages 60 & over) $3 for Children (ages16 & under)

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Telephone: 919-856-6675

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See Happy Dan perform magic, comedy and more.

Cost: $5/person

Where:
Renaissance Centre
405 Brooks St.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Join park staff for an informal fishing experience for the whole family. Take your own poles or borrow one from the park through the Tackle Loaner Program. Bait and basic instruction are...

Cost: Free

Where:
Lake Crabtree County Park
1400 Aviation Parkway
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Lake Crabtree County Park
Telephone: 919-460-3355
Contact Name: Carol Cunningham
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PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Ken Ludwig's Sherwood: The Adventures of Robin Hood, a rip-roaring romp through Sherwood Forest with all the thrills and romance you could ever...

Cost: $12-$57

Where:
PlayMakers Repertory Company
120 Country Club Road
Chapel Hill, NC  27599
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Sponsor: PlayMakers Repertory Company
Telephone: 703-850-2282

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Ages 1-5 and caregiver discover nature on a morning stroll. Register online. Choose course #117285.

Cost: $8/resident, $10/nonresident

Where:
Jack Smith Park
9725 Penny Rd.
Cary, NC  27606
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Telephone: 919-387-5980
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Get great bargains on gently used kids' clothing, toys, furniture, baby equip & more at the twice-yearly Kidz Stuff Consignment Sale. From strollers to jumpers, bikes to wipes warmers-if a...

Cost: Free

Where:
Hayes Barton Baptist Church
1800 Glenwood Ave
Raleigh, NC
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Celebrate Raleigh's creativity under the beautiful lights and cobblestone streets of City Market. Find locally-made goods and enjoy a night filled with music and entertainment with over 30...

Cost: Free

Where:
City Market
306 Parham St
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Sponsor: Raleigh Night Market
Contact Name: Sara Buxton
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Rodeos, a mule-pulling contest, arts and crafts, vendors, carnival rides, street performers, bluegrass shows and more are all part of Benson Mule Days. 

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Downtown Benson
500 S. Market St.
Benson, NC  27504
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Website »

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PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Ken Ludwig's Sherwood: The Adventures of Robin Hood, a rip-roaring romp through Sherwood Forest with all the thrills and romance you could ever...

Cost: $12-$57

Where:
PlayMakers Repertory Company
120 Country Club Road
Chapel Hill, NC  27599
View map »


Sponsor: PlayMakers Repertory Company
Telephone: 703-850-2282

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The autumnal equinox signals the beginning of fall. It is the point when there are exactly 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness at the equator. Mark the change of seasons by heading to the...

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Sponsor: Historic Yates Mill County Park
Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

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Rodeos, a mule-pulling contest, arts and crafts, vendors, carnival rides, street performers, bluegrass shows and more are all part of Benson Mule Days. 

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Downtown Benson
500 S. Market St.
Benson, NC  27504
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Website »

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Take part in a class that teaches individualized ways to foster motor development for your child. Learn about tummy time alternatives, best positions for your baby, how to help your child learn to...

Cost: $18

Where:
Open Arts
1222 Copeland Oaks Dr
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Babies On The MOVE
Contact Name: Rebecca Quinones
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Take part in a class that teaches individualized ways to foster motor development for your child. Learn about carry positions, best positions for your baby, how to help your child learn to crawl,...

Cost: $18

Where:
Open Arts
1222 Copeland Oaks Dr
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Babies On The MOVE
Contact Name: Rebecca Quinones
Website »

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Get great bargains on gently used kids' clothing, toys, furniture, baby equip & more at the twice-yearly Kidz Stuff Consignment Sale. From strollers to jumpers, bikes to wipes warmers-if a...

Cost: Free

Where:
Hayes Barton Baptist Church
1800 Glenwood Ave
Raleigh, NC
View map »


Website »

More information

In celebration of the 151st anniversary of emancipation, MOJAA Performing Arts Company presents a theatrical experience that leads guests through Mordecai Historic Park to experience plantation...

Cost: $15/person

Where:
Mordecai Historic Park
1 Mimosa St.
Raleigh, NC  27604
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Website »

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Friday, Sept. 21, 6:30–7:30 p.m. Go on an Owl Prowl and discover the kinds of owls that are found in the Piedmont, what they eat, where they live, and what they sound like. Dissect an owl...

Cost: $1/Person

Where:
Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Road
Apex, NC  27539
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Telephone: 919-662-2850
Contact Name: Ashley Martin
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Join us for Scrappy Hour at The Scrap Exchange! This month at Scrappy Hour we will be upcycling mason jars! Join us to create useful and decorative items that will spruce up your space! We will be...

Cost: $25

Where:
The Scrap Exchange
2050 Chapel Hill Road
Lakewood Avenue
Durham, NC  27707
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Telephone: 919-213-1278
Contact Name: Anna Graves
Website »

More information

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Ken Ludwig's Sherwood: The Adventures of Robin Hood, a rip-roaring romp through Sherwood Forest with all the thrills and romance you could ever...

Cost: $12-$57

Where:
PlayMakers Repertory Company
120 Country Club Road
Chapel Hill, NC  27599
View map »


Sponsor: PlayMakers Repertory Company
Telephone: 703-850-2282

More information

Take the family to see a movie by the lake. Movie begins at dusk. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Bond Park
801 High House Rd.
Cary, NC
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Website »

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Americana powerhouse vocal trio Red Molly has graced stages from Denver to Denmark. The "Mollies" bring audiences to their feet with their gorgeous harmonies, crisp musicianship,...

Cost: $24

Where:
Garner Performing Arts Center
742 W Garner Road
Garner, NC  27529
View map »


Sponsor: Heartwood Montessori
Telephone: (919) 465-2113
Contact Name: Virginia McCollum
Website »

More information

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The autumnal equinox signals the beginning of fall. It is the point when there are exactly 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness at the equator. Mark the change of seasons by heading to the...

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27603
View map »


Sponsor: Historic Yates Mill County Park
Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

More information

Rodeos, a mule-pulling contest, arts and crafts, vendors, carnival rides, street performers, bluegrass shows and more are all part of Benson Mule Days. 

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Downtown Benson
500 S. Market St.
Benson, NC  27504
View map »


Website »

More information

2018 marks 300 years since the notorious pirate Blackbeard roamed the Carolina coast and lost his life – and his head – in a fight with British soldiers. Learn more about the history of...

Cost: Free

Where:
North Carolina Museum of History
5 E. Edenton St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Website »

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Take part in nearly 100 exhibits and activities, including dragon boat races, cultural displays, games, health screenings, and stage performances. Enjoy a wide collection of ethnic foods...

Cost: $5 advance tickets; $8 at the door. Free for ages 12 and younger

Where:
Booth Amphitheatre
8003 Regency Pkwy.
Cary, NC  27518
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Website »

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Tinkergarten brings early childhood education to a park near you. In our classes, kids enjoy the freedom of independent exploration through well-designed play-based activities that lend from the...

Cost: Free

Where:
Hollow Rock Nature Park
692 Erwin Rd
Durham, NC  27707
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Sponsor: Ali Wolfe
Contact Name: Ali Wolfe
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Take the family for a day of activity and fellowship. There are two different courses for beginners and advanced competitors, and the whole family can take part as a team. Register online.

Cost: Free

Where:
Hope Valley Farms YMCA
4818 S. Roxboro St.
Durham , NC  27713
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Sponsor: Hope Valley Farms YMCA
Telephone: 919-401-9621
Contact Name: Kelly Johnson
Website »

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Embrace your inner rebel and celebrate the motorcycle lifestyle with family-friendly activities ranging from stunt shows and specialty rides to live music and local vendors. See website for hours.

Cost: $10 for ages 13 and older. Free for ages 12 and younger.

Where:
Raleigh Convention Center
500 S. Salisbury St
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Website »

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Project Palooza benefits Project Enlightenment in Wake County and celebrates Project Enlightenment's service to children, families and educators. Enjoy games, crafts,...

Cost: Free

Where:
Project Enlightenment
501 S. Boylan Ave.
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Sponsor: Project Enlightenment
Telephone: 614-783-2507
Contact Name: Caitlin Howison
Website »

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Durham Public Schools Hub Farm hosts its biannual open house. This free event will feature music, food catered by DPS students, boating, tree climbing, tours, beekeeping demos, and is kid- and...

Cost: Free for general admission

Where:
The Hub Farm
117 Milton Rd.
Durham, NC  27712
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Children's booksellers read their favorite picture books. All ages.

Cost: Free

Where:
Quail Ridge Books
4209-100 Lassiter Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27609
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Website »

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Discover how beavers live, eat and play in their watery world. Search for beaver signs around the pond. Ages 3-5 with parent. Advance registration required.  

Cost: $3/child

Where:
Wilkerson Nature Preserve
5229 Awls Haven Dr.
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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Taste the world while enjoying free music and dance entertainment, kids games and raffle prizes. Enjoy authentic foods from a dozen countries, live entertainment, games, inflatables and more.

Cost: Free

Where:
J. Ashley Wall Towne Square
Cyprus and Third Streets
Wendell, NC  27591
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Website »

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Want to get inside Historic Yates Mill? Join us for a half-hour tour (starting at 1 p.m., 1:30 p.m., 2 p.m., 2:30 p.m. or 3 p.m.) to view the main power drive and milling machinery while exploring...

Cost: $5 for Adults $4 for Seniors (ages 60 & over) $3 for Children (ages 7–16)* *Ch

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
View map »


Telephone: 919-856-6675

More information

Explore the historic heart of downtown Raleigh on a walking tour of Fayetteville Street. Tours highlight the people, places, architecture and political movements that have shaped...

Cost: Adults (18+) $10; Youth (7-17) $4; Children (6 & under) Free.

Where:
City of Raleigh Museum
220 Fayetteville St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Website »

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Enjoy live music in the Stephenson Amphitheater and Rose Garden. Kids can play games and make crafts in the Kids Zone. Gates open at 1:30 p.m.

Cost: $10 advance tickets; $15 at the door

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


Website »

More information

Get great bargains on gently used kids' clothing, toys, furniture, baby equip & more at the twice-yearly Kidz Stuff Consignment Sale. From strollers to jumpers, bikes to wipes warmers-if a...

Cost: Free

Where:
Hayes Barton Baptist Church
1800 Glenwood Ave
Raleigh, NC
View map »


Website »

More information

In celebration of the 151st anniversary of emancipation, MOJAA Performing Arts Company presents a theatrical experience that leads guests through Mordecai Historic Park to experience plantation...

Cost: $15/person

Where:
Mordecai Historic Park
1 Mimosa St.
Raleigh, NC  27604
View map »


Website »

More information

Many animals are active around sunset or shortly after. Take a walk with a park naturalist to explore the woods and fields at this special time. Look for deer, coyotes and owls. All ages....

Cost: $2

Where:
Wilkerson Nature Preserve
5229 Awls Haven Dr.
Raleigh, NC  27614
View map »


Sponsor: City of Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources
Telephone: 919-996-6764
Contact Name: Wilkerson Nature Preserve
Website »

More information

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Ken Ludwig's Sherwood: The Adventures of Robin Hood, a rip-roaring romp through Sherwood Forest with all the thrills and romance you could ever...

Cost: $12-$57

Where:
PlayMakers Repertory Company
120 Country Club Road
Chapel Hill, NC  27599
View map »


Sponsor: PlayMakers Repertory Company
Telephone: 703-850-2282

More information

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