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.