STORIES OF recently graduated Jim, Jean or Harry driving cabs, waiting tables or mowing lawns after four expensive years of college are on every neighbor's clucking tongue. Naturally, parents and teenagers, haunted by the twin specters of joblessness and underemployment after an investment that can easily exceed $25,000, want to ensure the full life, or at least a good job.

They think the key is to pick a college that has an array of vocational programs or a major, such as business, that they envision as being hooked right into the job market. They want something practical, especially since Joe or Jane has no idea what he or she wants to do.

In most cases they could not be more wrong.

What most parents don't stop to realize is that they themselves are walking proof that their concern is illusory or overdone. Just as a father's vision usually can't penetrate the screen of his adult successes back into his own adolescent failures, so he can't see why his 18-year-old doesn't know what he wants to do and why he doesn't get about the business of doing it.

The conjunction of falling job market and rising college costs tends to aggravate the syndrome and sharpen the sense of guilt about an unmotivated or goalless child. Parents usually believe it's a social disease to be concealed. The fact is, it's normal.

To test whether the parents of my young clients were themselves proof of an over-concern, I started a few months ago asking for their educational and job histories along with the more usual biographical questions.

After questioning 100 fathers of college-bound youths, I've found that more than eighty per cent of them aren't doing anything remotely connected with their original college majors. A slightly larger percentage of the working mothers has remained true to their first choice. That's because their choice was often teaching, one of only three areas where more than half the majors stay in the field. The others are engineering and business administration. There are some caveats to come, however, even on these.

In all the other fields - arts, humanities, social sciences, sciences and mathematics - the rates of abandonment among males range clear up to ninty-six per cent by the time the men are settled with family and career, according to the findings of some major studies. The fickleness of women is even greater.

In other words, few teen-agers or young adults have crystal balls clear enough to know what will engage them ten or twenty years hence. And the 40- and 45-year-olds wind up voting overwhelmingly that the best bet for a satisfying life is getting an education, whatever the major.

Why isn't job preparation the best basis on which to choose a college? Because people change and grow, and so do the multitudinous ways in which a person can earn a living or create a new kind of career for himself.

True, the liberal arts graduate often has more trouble finding his first job than the early specialist like the accountant, engineer or computer expert. But investing too much significance in that is like mistaking the first inning score for the final one. Basing plans on that kind of scoring system can damage person's lives. The studies show that the liberal arts fied with their lives and often better paid.

In the good colleges, moreover, students often get two valuable confrontations. One is with themselves and the values and standards they decide to acquire. The other is a basic discipline called thinking, which, among other things, helps one to learn not only the tricks but the implications of any trade.

Two other things often forgotten are that four years of college can't and don't make anyone a physician or a practitioner in any field that isn't routine or formulaic. No one knows what the job market will be four or fourteen years hence.Today's popular fields may be tomorrow's over-crowded ones. Law, it has been predicted, may be the next such casualty. Teaching certificates have already turned from gilt edge to dross, and engineering has its swings from feast to famine. Engineers can't adapt to a changing job market as easily as the generalist liberal arts and other graduates.

Many of the thousands of careers in the occupational directories, like most of the drugs on the pharmacists' shelves, did not exist before World War II. And because our society not only grows in complexity and sophistication, but also is the only one that makes a serious effort to offer everyone the education to develop his talents, an individual has many more chances to find a kind of work that interests him and uses his talents. The manpower experts, in fact, have been saying for years that today's students are likely to have three or four different careers or branches off a main stem.

Relevance is an elusive principle in the face of situations like these: A young woman who graduated from Michigan with a degree in biology decided she wasn't a biologist, went back and got a master of business administration and now has a new kind of responsible job figuring out the environmental impact of a proposed commercial or industrial installation for the Environmental Protection Agency.

A father who was an economics major tired of the family furniture business, decided to follow a long-held urge to operate his own kennel, made a success of it and is finally glad in his work.

The owner of a popular Baltimore restaurant is a registered pharmacist, while the head of a coffee shop chain there is a German literature major. Another German lit major got advanced degrees in political science and economics and is now a Central Intelligence Agency economist. An investment firm and an insurance brokerage here are owned respectively by the holder of a master's in geography and a science major.

Twenty years out of college English literature majors are scattered all over the employment scene and in roles worlds removed from their field of concentration. One is a budget official at the National Institutes of Health, another switched to anthropology and directs a study of metropolitan problems for the National Institute of Mental Health, and a third is director of several major Department of Health, Education and Welfare programs. A high official of the Organization of American States thought philosophy was his field until he fell for law and then for international relations.

The parents who are still doing something stemming from their undergraduate interests tend to be doctors (but some of them were music, art history and sociology majors), accountants, engineers, college faculty members, school teachers and businessmen.

On of the faithful few, however, a successful builder and developer, says of his business administration major at Rutgers, "It was absolutely useless!"

And some of those who never complete a major also find happiness, like the CIA official who says he was tossed out of a most prestigious school.

It's hardly surprising then that studies consistently show that two-thirds of students in college change their career plans at least once, often twice, in four years. Most graduates change jobs at least once in the first five years after college, even on the graduate level, researchers say. Harvard found it happens even to its master of business administration degree holders.

Graduates in engineering, business and teaching to display a greater tendency to remain in their fields, as I said earlier, but even in these three there are heavy countervailing minuses:

Only thirty per cent of those who start in engineering graduate, chiefly because the field does demand an early commitment.

There are three new teachers for every job opening.

Two-thirds of the business world's administrators did not major in business.

When men and women in mid-career are asked to look back on their college experiences they say in overwhelming numbers that what they remember are the values, the standards or the stimulus to continue developing themselves. But most of the course content has been forgotten.

The message is to get help in finding out who you are and a start on the road to becoming it - which is the job of college. Pick the toughest college you can get into. And if possible pick one of the small group that has a history of contributing to moral as well as intellectual development.

And don't shy away from the world moral, as both students and faculty have been tending to do. Most of the crucial decisions in life are subjective value judgments, not cool cerebrations of pure, trained reason. This is a finding of Douglas Heath, a psychology professor at Haverford who has been studying that rigorous Quaker college's effects on its students for thirty years. The principal influence on the development of a surpassingly successful group of alumni has been their under-graduate college. And the outstanding quality of these men, as rated by their professional colleagues, was their ethical integrity.

More than eighty per cent of these men followed by Heath had advanced degrees, whether in medicine, law, business management, engineering, social work or one of the academic disciplines. More than twenty per cent of them were teaching in the major colleges and universities, forty-three per cent had already secured patents, published books, articles or poems and many had received post-college awards. Several were presidents or managers of their firms.

They said their graduate or professional schools did little or nothing to help them develop the qualities of character that contributed to their success. Only one lawyer spoke of a course that examined thical values. And, Heath noted, "Although the majority of them were being educated to serve others, only one said his professional school reinforced his desire to serve them."

Heath's findings have hit him hard enough to make him change his whole mode and emphasis in teaching his own courses at Haverford.

Indeed, Heath said that at his own alma mater (Amherst) "I was seldom challenged by the faculty or the college's ethos to confront self-consciously my own values; I received an excellent intellectual education but I was not much affected by the college." An education that "does not work itself into a man's values, challenge his view of himself, and alter his relations with others is unlikely to produce many maturing effects that persist," he added.

The kind of college that does affect values will grow more important, Heath predicts, because "the uncertainty of our future as a species, the extraordinary value choices provoked by the rapidity of change that we face will demand greater maturity and adaptability of our students tomorrow."

Several colleges exploring ways to make liberal arts graduates more attractive to employers have discovered that both federal agencies and private firms tend to put much more faith in the applicant's ability to write a coherent paragraph or resume or to conduct a sensible, grammatical interview than in his major or the name of his college.

Equally important are the young person's qualities as a human being, his ability to obtain the cooperation and respect of others. In fact, one faculty team wrote that it was "astonished to discover that the application process was more important than the applicant's academic background, the reputation of the college or university, personal connections or even grades."

How does one find the kind of college that will help develop abilities and personal qualities? Most of the guiding clues people use are about as reliable as the medieval maps of a flat world. Too many students and parents equate quality with size, geography or what an acquaintance says. These are good ways to get stung.

For most people, but not all, the best educational experience is likely to be obtained in the good small college, which means smaller than your high school if it's much over 2000 students. It offers much better teaching and far more rewarding relationships with teachers and usually with other students than the multiversity, whether it be 10,000 or 30,000. As the catalog of exciting Kirkland College says, "College is a time of internal exploration" and the small, familial community is more conducive to this than the big impersonal one.

One reason may university faculty members and administrators sent their own children to small private colleges is that they know first-hand the bigger the size the more inferior and impersonal the learning experience is likely to be. To a University of Pennsylvania official I once offered the opinion that virtually every large university today is a gyp joint for the undergraduate, "including yours." He looked a bit startled, grinned and said, "That's right."

Even at Cornell and Harvard most of the freshman and sophomore instruction is the chore of the teaching or graduate assistant and any contact with genuine faculty is often from the rear of a large lecture hall. That is only instruction; education is a dialogue. There are no rewards at the big universities for being a good teacher of undergraduates. That enterprise is usually a nuisance by-product.

The great Johns Hopkins has especial fame in the sciences and advertises a 10-1 student-faculty ratio, but is nevertheless a pedestrian mill of amphitheater classes of wall-to-wall people for the pre-med and science majors, even in upper level courses. Seminar-size classes and the close relationships of a quality college are available only in such areas as art history or political science.

The student council president at Vassar told me he picked it over Brown when he saw how much larger Brown's classes were. Berkeley, Michigan, Winsconsin and Minnesota are in the top ranks of the academic pecking order, but there's more personal attention from able teachers at such places as the Claremont College, Occidental, Mills or at one of the clusters of small colleges that are the University of California campuses at San Diego and Santa Cruz.

At Michigan or Winsconsin, only their peerless honors programs can compare with the quality of instruction and close personal contact between teacher and student at colleges such as Kalamazoo, Beloit or Lawrence. And a former University of Minnesota president sent his own son to Carleton. Indeed, the honors programs' whole reason for being is to provide, if only for a select few, what the good small private college offers all its students.

Many state colleges may be smaller than the universities but suffer the same defects of size and often have more regional student bodies.The physics department chairman of one told me that not in his memory had the school had a physics major.

If you want a college that is going to make you grow, find one that will make you sweat some and force you to confront yourself and other disturbing facts. This does not mean picking one by geography. Quality is distributed institutionally, not geographically. As the admissions director at Bates College - one of the Grade-A New England ones - said, "The trouble with this part of the country is that there are some Grade-A colleges and a lot of Grade-C colleges and not much in between."

He could also have added that Grade-A colleges in other parts of the country are sometimes easier to get into than the East's Grade-C schools.

Similarly, even deserved reputations may not tell the whole story. For example, a young frien who spent a couple of years at Princeton and is now at a college he'd never heard of before, wrote me recently, "I am finding Macalester very satisfactory. The level of teaching is as high as it was at Princeton, at least in my experience, and one must work about as hard to keep up." That kind of reassuring intelligence could have been written about forty or more good colleges that most people have never heard of.Another of my young friends who's at Princeton tells me that he's considered a curiosity in his dorm group because he reads for pleasure.

There is not trick or skill to finding out about a college, only work. After looking it up, visit it - by yourself - for twenty-four hours at least and spend that time asking questions. You will find the students will be candid about whether they're working to learn or for grades, how many hours a week they work or pages they read, whether the faculty members are good teachers and also good and valuable friends, whether cheating is common or outlawed, whether the school has a good professional and graduate school acceptance record, what the students think they're getting out of their experiences, what happens on weekends, and so on.

Ask faculty members some of the same questions. Every question you have deserves an answer. Any reluctance to provide full and honest ones is sufficient ground for crossing that college off your list. Remember, no matter what the name of the institution, it's your money and your life and that makes you much the more important.