THE BLOG

The Major Major Decision

03/11/2013 12:34 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2013

Parents and students often ask me which college major will secure a quality of life they imagine to be immune from difficulty, which is to say unemployment, poverty or even boredom.

The answer may not be "which" but "what" instead. Meaning, reject the options, and custom-make your major to represent your talents and the world in which you expect to employ them.

The college major choice was placed on a pedestal by some while others were already hacking at its base. Many look at workforce data, colleges' job placement statistics and need within the marketplace to create a hierarchy of majors that looks like this:

The Best Paying Majors Of 2012

Colleges aim an increasing number of their students toward these majors to increase their perceived performance in college rankings that base themselves on outputs, which is to say a college that finds immediate employment for a high percentage of its graduates does a better job educating its students than a college with lower employment statistics. But that's similar to applying supply and demand industrial principles to an economy that's supposed to value information and its application over mere production of a good. The United States' education system -- especially the public system -- is increasingly reducing the definition of education to the accuracy with which it can fire students at jobs (and some argue fuel friendly political ideology).

On the other side of the world, China -- lousy with engineers -- wonders how it can take the reigns of a global information economy and generate CEOs who innovate and create entirely new industries like the United States' do. In a conversation last fall, I spoke with representatives of The Chinese University of Hong Kong who explained that their aim was to reinvigorate and invent new applications for students' engineering projects through a greater focus on the liberal arts, believing that a mastery of a concept is as important its range of application. The wider the range, the greater potential there is for innovation, the thinking goes.

I wonder if this isn't closer to the purpose of your education. Educate specifically at first, and then open this fully-armed brain to a wider world afterward. If there's a solution that at once addresses the nation's millennial jobs crisis while adding value to education instead of basing it on these statistics, it could lie in a college education that holds creativity and diversity in higher esteem than, say... esteem for its own sake. The Obama Administration's proposed Race To The Top-based higher education improvement policies would reward colleges with more federal funding if they increase their graduation rates. To many, this suggests that America's higher education system -- the most revered in the world -- will lower its bar for the government's cash. If passed or enacted in any way, students will increasingly have to take control of their own education to ensure its value. As the nation debates the overall value of a college degree, it's important to recognize that degrees aren't created equally in the same way that colleges aren't. Though it's currently impossible to create your own university, creating your own degree is much easier. So make a valuable one.

How: The first step could be swapping "Which major should I choose?" for "What should I study?" in a way that doesn't glorify your passion over what you can contribute to the world. Otherwise, you'd see even more puppetry majors with minors in 16th century French fashion and a concentration in cave drawing.

Instead, survey the world around you and consider what you'll need as much as what you like. You didn't work hard to get into your choice college to study simply what you like or what you're "good at." My educated guess is that today's students -- more than anyone else -- will identify the trends of a future society with greater accuracy if they were to consider the question more seriously. This way, students won't end up filling a niche but a need instead. What will the future -- beyond what's present -- require, and what it will ask if you? Your ability to rise to each of these is the public's trust in you and your collateral.

Take a guess, take a chance, take the gamble or the first step in a wild goose chase that is professional fulfillment in this new economy that isn't yet trained to welcome you. The future of the country isn't simply you, and you should understand that. To create a new "you" think of the word collectively and your place seriously. You aren't educating yourself for the opportunities on the horizon but for those beyond it.