Which comes first–your major selection or your college choice?

Tonight I was on one of those big websites that, when you enter some basic information about what you’re looking for in a college, spits out a list of colleges to which you might consider applying. (The vast majority of these sites, by the way, are drawing on data from the National Center for Education Statistics IPEDS Data Center, which you can search yourself–and which will give you far more information than the big college search sites. In fact, the NCES folks made it easy to search IPEDS via College Navigator. Skip the slick sites–especially those that charge you fees for a subscription–and head straight to the Navigator.)

This particular site claims “Discovering the right college starts with finding the right major” and describes the process of determining your major your “first step toward success.”

I’m inclined to disagree.

According to NCES, at least 80 percent of college students will change their majors at least once.

My first college roommate went from history to education, then to library science, to geography, back to library science, and finally settled on range management. Along the way, she joined the Army Reserves, for whom she served as a hydrologist. She started an environmental engineering Ph.D., switched to a top-ranked law school, and finally ended up as an artisan bread baker, which makes her exceptionally happy.

Now, she is undoubtedly an extreme example of a student swinging wildly from field to field. However, she is certainly not alone in her decision to explore other fields.

When I went to college, I knew about education careers, and only education careers. My parents, aunts, and uncles–except for one uncle who was a real estate appraiser–worked in education as teachers or administrators. Many of my friends’ parents were teachers. (Heck, even that appraiser uncle now teaches at a community college.) So I went off to college to become a high school English teacher. During winter break my junior year, after my parents had consumed several glasses of wine, they finally became blunt with me and told me that I would likely hate being a high school English teacher, and I should become a lawyer or a professor. Of course, neither of them really knew anything about either of those careers, other than that they were prestigious and a lot of smart people chose them.

My experience isn’t atypical, either. As a professor, I’ve met many, many students whose choices of major are overly influenced by their parents. When I taught at UC Davis, for example, I met at least a dozen young Asian-American women whose parents had convinced them they must go to pharmacy school, though the students quietly confessed to me that they had almost no interest in that field. For these students and many others, developing an independent, adult relationship with their parents was a major learning objective in college.

My point is this: you likely will change your major, and you might even veer off in a totally different direction. And once you graduate, you are not your major.

So. . . I recommend you choose your college first, and then your major, especially if you’re looking at liberal arts colleges where there’s a standard set of majors in the arts, humanities, and sciences, with a smattering of social sciences (e.g., economics, sociology).

Of course, I’m going to temper this recommendation with some common sense. If you know you’re interested in the agricultural sciences and you have little interest in graduate school, then you should pick a university that offers those majors. Someplace like UC Davis might be ideal, as it offers the full spectrum of agricultural science courses and majors, from biotechnology to large animal husbandry, to pomology, enology and viticulture, brewing science, and sustainable agriculture.

If–to continue this example, which of course also applies to plenty of other fields–you know you want to work in agriculture, but you’re not sure in what capacity, or if you’re more interested in the policy side of agricultural practice, then you might consider a liberal arts college for your undergraduate years, and a specialized graduate program. Maybe you’ll end up in agricultural or land-use law or biotech patenting. Maybe you’ll be working for a historical consulting company that specializes in researching land rights claims. Perhaps you’ll go the biological route and find yourself doing integrated pest management for stone fruit orchards.

The possibilities are endless, particularly if you have a broad understanding of several fields and can make connections among natural and/or cultural phenomena that, on the surface, may not seem to be connected. That’s why, for the vast majority of traditionally aged college students, it’s very, very smart to get an authentic, deep but interdisciplinary, liberal arts education.

My point is this: Choose your undergraduate college wisely, and for the love of all that is holy, don’t believe for a moment that the major you declare when you enter college at age 18 is going to determine your life’s course.  If you’ve selected a college that is a truly great fit for you and that offers a first-rate education, you’re going to have the opportunity to find success in any number of fields.


College helps its traditional-age students complete the transition from adolescence to adulthood. For decades (actually centuries!), however, people have been debating with which constellation of knowledge and skills a graduating student should enter adulthood. Many employers want to new graduates who can communicate and problem solve creatively; others want graduates with experience in their specific hardware or software platforms. Other leaders claim a college education should enable graduates to contribute to the civic good of society, not merely its business profits and tax base.  Advocates of this approach argue a broad-based liberal arts education, with a balanced curriculum of courses in the arts, humanities, social sciences, and sciences, provides the best preparation for individual graduates as well as society at large.

What any single model looks like in practice, however, is also up for debate. Most humanities disciplines, for example, have experienced a shift in their canonical texts over the past four decades. In a recent essay excerpted in the Mail & Guardian, author J. M. Coetzee declares himself a passionate partisan for the humanities, but then claims universities need only require students to take a year-long course in the humanities. He writes to John Higgins, author of a new book on academic freedom,

You argue that only the faculties of humanities are equipped to teach students the critical literacy that allows a culture to continually renew itself. But I envisage a telling question will be asked of you: even if we grant that critical literacy is as important as you claim, do students really need to know about Hesiod and Petrarch, about Francis Bacon and Jean-Paul Sartre, about the Boxer Rebellion and the Thirty Years War, to attain a sufficient competence in such literacy? Can you not simply design a pair of one­-semester courses – courses in which all undergraduates, no matter what their career track, will be required to enroll – one course to be entitled “Reading and Writing”, in which students will be trained to dissect arguments and write good expository prose; and the other to be entitled “Great Ideas”, in which they will be briefed on the main currents of world thought from Ancient Egypt to the present? A pair of courses like that will not require an entire faculty of humanities behind them, merely a school of critical literacy staffed with bright young instructors.

I’ll have much more to say about that passage, and the rest of Coetzee’s essay, soon, but for now, let’s take up Coetzee’s consideration of “critical literacy.”  He seems to be referring to a student’s awareness and understanding of the big concepts that have shaped (at least) the Western world over millennia.

For our purposes, Coetzee’s definition of literacy is too narrow.  We should be talking instead of literacies.

See, before you even begin to make a list of colleges to which you’d like to apply, you need to be clear on why you’re going to college in the first place.  (Alas, “to get a job” is no longer a sufficient answer.) If you are a particularly clear- and future-minded student, you might be able to trust your vision of whom you will be in four to six years—I have known, students, for example, who know from day 1 in which federal agency they want to work, and the steps they must take to get there—then you can get away with some fairly specific objectives.  The vast majority of students, however, find college to be a process of discovery, and they graduate with a different view of themselves and the world than they had when entering college.

Most high school juniors and seniors, therefore, might be better off thinking about literacies rather than specific career objectives.  You may have already had opportunities to develop some of these, but others you may want to develop in greater depth—and some you might not even have considered as sets of knowledge and skills you might prioritize in college.

Cultural literacy: This category might include traditional cultural literacy, such as being able to speak another language, pick up on literary allusions, identify musical genres, or determine the aesthetic genealogy of a piece of contemporary art.  However, it also might also include understanding how to talk (or, perhaps even more importantly, how not to talk) with someone whose life experiences have been very different from your own because of their national citizenship, race/ethnicity, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic class, disability, political commitments, or religion, for example. Avoiding chronic foot-in-mouth disease is an excellent, and much undervalued, skill. Colleges that attract a highly diverse student body offer all kinds of opportunities to develop this literacy.

Civic literacy: In my mind, this overlaps with cultural literacy.  You should know how your government functions, on local, state, and national levels, and what roles residents and citizens can take in shaping that function. You should be able to have a civil and potentially mind-changing (yours or theirs) conversation with someone whose views occupy a very different point on political spectrum from your own. You should be able to evaluate all kinds of data (including statistics, anecdotes, people’s moral stances, etc.) and formulate a recommendation for action (e.g. passing a local bond to support schools; voting for one candidate over another; advocating for a rule, policy, or law) based on these data.

Scientific and mathematical literacy: This literacy might include more than a basic grasp of the content and methods of biology, chemistry, physics, math, and the various fusions of these fields, including earth science, computer science, kinesiology, certain areas of linguistics, nanotechnology, environmental engineering, and countless others—and you should develop the ability to update your knowledge in these fields once you graduate. Part of this literacy involves understanding that science is influenced by culture—e.g., what kinds of research we choose to fund, which groups of people are most likely to benefit from (or be harmed by) particular research, or what and how individuals observe in the lab or field—and advocating for a better, more democratic, more equitable scientific practice.

Technological literacy: This one is ever-changing, thanks to the pace of technological development. For most students, it’s enough to emerge from college able to figure out how to use all kinds of software with almost no formal instruction—but I don’t want to make this process sound easy or natural. Developing this literacy means getting practice with lots of different platforms, and for some students, it also includes engaging with code or markup.

Moral and ethical literacy: This literacy involves developing a compass that resonates with you, rather than adopting the compass provided to you by your family or community. Ethics instruction can come from just about anywhere—courses in philosophy, literature, economics, religious studies, journalism, social work, and biotechnology, for example, all regularly touch on issues of ethics and/or morality. But you also might be the kind of person who wants to explore moral and ethical issues outside the classroom; maybe you need a college with a good debate team, informal and interdisciplinary student-faculty group discussions, or a city packed with all kinds of churches, temples, and mosques.

Social and sexual literacy: If you ever feel socially awkward—and hey, who doesn’t?—college provides many opportunities to work on your interpersonal and communication skills, including dating and sex. If you know your sexuality is other than traditional hetero, for example, but you haven’t had a chance to explore it, you might want a college that explicitly embraces sexual and gender diversity and has thriving communities of LGBT people.  If you are straight, and you’re hoping to find your life’s love in college, find one that is relatively gender-balanced; if you’re a woman looking to date men, for example, a former women’s college that only recently began to admit men might not be your best bet. Conversely, if you’re looking to focus exclusively on your intellectual development, and you feel dating has been distracting you or you have no interest in it whatsoever, then such a college might actually benefit you.

Health and wellness literacy: This literacy encompasses all kinds of learning to take care of yourself physically, mentally, emotionally, and psychologically.  Many traditional-age students arrive at college to discover that, once removed from their familial environments, they need additional support because they are, for example, depressed or anxious. Other students experience dramatic shifts in health, including dramatic weight loss/gain or addiction. Understanding how your body and mind work, and getting informal or professional help when you need it, is an important skill, and one that is more often acquired through experience than through formal classroom instruction or “book learning.”