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On Parenting
Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 01/12/2012

Choosing a major in college: Do parents get a say?

A study released last week reported the depressing-but-not-surprising news that certain beloved college majors lead to far greater chances of unemployment.
(Butch Dill - AP)

For parents, the news leads to an obvious question: How much should we encourage or discourage our kids when it comes to majors?

Many of us graduated from college into a much more amenable job market when, say, a history major could find a job as a newspaper reporter. (Thanks mom and dad for not laughing me out of my dorm room.)

But unemployment among young people is nearly 9 percent and college costs have skyrocketed.

Many of us want to persuade our children to see college as a wide-open intellectual opportunity. But is that realistic? Are we setting kids up to graduate mired in debt and without prospects?

What if the parents are the tuition-payers? Should that mean they have more say in the choice of major?

I turned to Susan Ende for her perspective. She is the co-author of “How To Raise Your Adult Children,” (Plume, 2011), which espouses a tough-minded approach to relating to older children.

“In my day, we could go to college, get a liberal-arts education, major in English, Philosophy or even Latin and be able to get a job. That is not the case in the world today.  I know a young man who got a PhD in Philosophy from a top school and couldn’t get a permanent job until he graduated from law school,” Ende wrote to me.

“Given the realities, and I strongly believe in being realistic when making big life decisions, what our child majors in in college has become an important issue. I encourage parents to begin talking about their child’s tasks and responsibilities in college when their child is still in high school: money management, grades, health, social life, and now choosing a major. 

“I think it is fair and appropriate for a parent to tell his college-bound child that he is to choose a major that will lead to a job or the ability to get into a graduate program that will lead to a job.  Pre-med is a reasonable choice, if the kid intends to go to medical school. Philosophy will work if the kid intends to go to law school, but not to teach philosophy, because there are very few university jobs in that field.

“I think parents should require that their children think about their job life after college and find out what major will get them to that. Some of today’s kids don’t want to think about their adult life until after college and they have moved back home. I know it is hard for an 18 year-old to know what he would like to do for his career life. However, that is the way it works. We pick before we absolutely know. (Marriage is another example of that).

“The kid who picks a major that will lead to a job is in a much better position than the kid who picks the easy major or just what he likes. The second kid is setting himself up to become one of the college graduate drifters who drift back home and often take a long time to find their way back into the adult world again.

“So, I think that if a parent is paying for college, he should have a say in the choice of a major.  It’s one of those areas of life that the adolescent college student is not really prepared to determine for himself, because he doesn’t have to pay for it and may not want to think about his independent life after college.”

Should parents persuade children toward a major? If so, how forcefully? Does it make a difference who pays the tuition?

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