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The Rise of the Double Major

The economy is changing at warp speed. Some of the jobs most in demand in 2010 did not even exist in 2004. What’s more, Americans switch jobs, on average, about every four years.

Against this backdrop, colleges and universities are trying to figure out how best to prepare students for this evolving world. The trend since the 1960s had been toward occupational or vocational degrees, what some call practical degrees. The most popular undergraduate major today is business.

But debates have erupted on many campuses between those who advocate for the content of a practical major and others who think that the skills of a liberal-arts major are the best insurance in a rapidly changing world.

Meanwhile, students are hedging their bets: The number of double majors is on the rise, particularly at the most elite schools where supercharged students want to do it all and where the ranks of double majors have swelled to more than 30 to 40 percent of all graduates. Nearly four out of 10 students at Vanderbilt University have two majors. At the University of California at Davis, the number of double majors has risen 50 percent in five years. Double majors at MIT have jumped twofold since 1993.

“Demand is up not because schools are encouraging it, but because students are demanding it,” says Richard Pitt. Pitt is a sociologist at Vanderbilt who, along with Steven J. Tepper, has looked at the rise of double majors on nine campuses as part of a research study that will be released next year.

Among some of the findings of their study of 1,700 students across nine institutions:

  • Economics is the most popular component of double majors for men; foreign languages are the most popular pairing for women. Foreign languages, in particular, benefit from double majors. Less than 2 percent of single majors pick a foreign language as their field of study, but more than 10 percent add it as a second major.
  • Students who couple a science major with a nonscience major are more likely than others to say one is practical (and picked because of pressure from their parents) and the other is fun. The researchers paid particular attention to women majoring in STEM fields and found that they are more likely to enjoy that field of study if they have coupled it with a nonscience major.
  • There is no single way to double major. About a quarter of students pick majors that complement each other and where the requirements overlap. Pitt maintains that two unrelated majors probably yield bigger gains in the job market than two related majors. “It increases your breadth of knowledge,” he says.
  • Students are aware of the status of different majors, and so those who double major typically identify themselves with what they consider the highest-status one first (such as science or economics).
  • Black students and low-income students are least likely of all students on campus to have double majors. Pitt speculates that the reason is they don’t often arrive at college with Advanced Placement credits from high school.

What surprised me about the research from Pitt and Tepper is how easy students found double majoring. For many of these students, Pitt told me, it didn’t require extra semesters of classes or impinge on their extracurricular activities. It used to be that it took a student four years to complete one major (and lots of students still have difficulty doing that), but here are students who are able to complete two majors in four years. “They have mastered the ability to juggle demands,” Pitt says.

Not all college officials think this trend toward double majors is a good thing. Count Carl Moses, the provost at Susquehanna University, among them. He maintains that as college prices have increased, students feel compelled to get as much out of the experience as possible. They see the credential as the most valuable part of their undergraduate years, so why not get two? “They operate under the assumption employers are impressed by double majors,” he says.

I wonder if the core curriculum and individual majors are demanding enough, considering that more students, especially at selective colleges, are able to take on second majors. Those who agree with the findings of Academically Adrift may see that lack of rigor as the reason so many students take on double majors.

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