Should Colleges Ban Double Majors?

As higher-education organizations look for ways to boost graduation rates, an open letter urges schools to narrow student choices

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Tucked in a list of suggested reforms issued last week for how U.S. colleges could increase graduation rates is a recommendation that schools “narrow student choice” in order to promote completion. It’s an interesting idea — one that seems to go against the notion of college as a place to explore options and experiment with courses in divergent fields — that is all the more curious since it is included in an open letter from the nation’s six leading higher-education organizations.

“Sometimes we create a culture of dancing for more years than you have to, rather than getting out the door,” said Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University and chairman of the National Commission on Higher Education Attainment, which issued the Jan. 24 letter. “I think institutions have a responsibility to reset that balance.”

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The recommendation, along with the commission’s less surprising exhortations to create more flexible schedules and make it easier for students to transfer credits from one institution to another, is being put forth in an effort to improve the country’s dismally low college completion rate: just 58% of students who enroll in bachelor’s degree programs at four-year institutions graduate within six years and only 30% of students who enroll in certificate or associate’s degree programs at two-year institutions complete their degree within three years. But are double majors or an overabundance of academic options a big reason why so many students are getting off track?

The commission’s letter highlights a recommendation made by a task force at the University of Texas at Austin to bar students there from majoring in two subjects unless they can complete all the coursework requirements in four years. A second example cited in the letter details how Tennessee’s state technical schools are giving students fewer choices about which classes they can take to get a particular degree. The technical schools also mandated that students finish their degree within a fixed period of time. With these changes in place, many more students ended up completing degrees and in much less time, which is why the state board of regents has decided to bring the model to Tennessee’s 19 community colleges as well.

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“We are hoping to achieve a sea change in our student culture (from “more is more” to “on time”),” the task force UT-Austin said in a report issued last February. “Students who do not complete a bachelor’s degree by the beginning of their ninth long semester will be ineligible for dual degree, double major, or certificate programs: Only one degree (and one major) will be awarded — even if the student successfully completes the requirements for additional degrees, majors, programs.”

UT-Austin has not yet restricted double majors, but the mere suggestion is noteworthy at a time when it is increasingly common for students to pursue multiple majors. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the percentage of students who double-major jumped 96% between 2000 and 2008, the most recent year for which data is available. And although the total number of double majors is still small, accounting for only 5.5% of all undergrads in 2008, as many as 40% of students at some colleges are pursuing more than one major, according to a forthcoming report titled Double Majors: Influences, Identities & Impacts from the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University. The trend is particularly evident at selective schools. “Students are seeking a competitive advantage in the job market,” said Steven Tepper, associate director of the Curb Center and co-author of the study. “Many double-major students feel it is not enough to have a college degree — they need to further distinguish and differentiate themselves.”

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Whether a second major actually makes a student more attractive to an employer is unclear — little data exists on the subject — but either way, some in the higher-education community are beginning to question whether schools ought to push students in a different direction. “I don’t know if I would go as far as to say we should restrict students, but I think there has to be some work at the institutional level to make sure students understand why they plan on double-majoring and whether it’s really a smart idea,” said Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, which was not one of the organizations that signed the open letter. “They might not understand that it may delay graduation, may cost additional money and may give them an extra heavy course load. We need to make sure someone in the institution has had a conversation with them to make sure they understand the pros and cons.”

Even Tepper, who says double-majoring has a “huge positive impact” for some students, thinks college administrators need to be more involved. “Universities allow double majors to happen and have stood by while this trend has,” he said. “Institutions should help their graduates be more intentional about their choices.”

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At the same time, however, Tepper says his research does not suggest that students who double-major are more likely to drop out of college. He also found that having an additional major increases the time it takes to earn a degree only slightly, if at all. Of the 1,700 students surveyed for the report, 14% of double majors who were currently in their fourth year of college said they planned to be enrolled the following year compared to 12% of single majors. “[Many students] have been packing their resumes since eighth grade and so they know how to balance multiple commitments,” Tepper said. At UT-Austin, where the suggestion was made to eliminate double majors, students with an additional major are actually more likely to graduate. The task force report showed 69% of students with double majors graduate in four years as opposed to 60% of single majors. (To be sure, this does not suggest colleges should push more students into a second major as a way to increase college completion, but rather that those students who choose to double-major may be more motivated to begin with.) Either way, the task force noted, “Taking a double major does not slow time-to-degree.”

So why, then, are prominent figures in the higher-education community promoting the idea of narrowing student choice?

“I’m not sure that the word ‘narrow’ is quite the right word, it’s clarity that we’re really trying to achieve,” said Gee after embarking on a media tour to promote the letter. “I believe very strongly in the liberal arts education. We don’t want to take away those options. We want to provide clarity to students for how they can get through the system much faster — that would be the way that I would put it.”

10 comments
frankwilson
frankwilson

I think it should not be completely banned as students must be given choices of choosing their own combination of major and minor subjects in college. It will make them understand these subjects better and finally make them decide to persue their career in certain discipline. http://www.courseworkpal.co.uk


MarkT.DeNucciSr.
MarkT.DeNucciSr.

There are an infinite number of reason for the amount of time a particular person takes to finish an undergraduate degree.

  I graduated from high school in June 1969.  My finances did not allow for me to go to college as a full time student therefore I started as a part time student in Fall 1969.  I started out as an undetermined engineering major because I only knew I liked mathematics and science and really did not know where I wanted to go academically.  I went to school part time and worked full time until I graduated with a bachelor's degree in civil engineering in June 1980.  During that time I went from electrical engineering to mechanical engineering to finally civil engineering.  I finished with two specialties in my major and a double minor in mechanical engineering and mathematics.  I went onto a successful career as a structural engineering.

My wife did not start college until she was 21 (Fall 1981) and did not graduate until May 2007, when she was 47 years old.  She married me and worked full time and went to college part time while we raised a family.  She graduated with a bachelor's degree in business with a major in finance and a minor in accounting.  When she graduated her employer promoted her to a financial analyst position.

The moral of my story is:  College is about getting an education.  How long one takes to graduate and what one does with his education is no one's business but his.

mjh5702
mjh5702

I am currently in college as well and I intend to double major. I want to do it because I want to make myself more marketable in the job market. This article suggests that there is little evidence that this will help but I think it will. Instead of just having one market of jobs for my degree I will have two. I'm not looking at it as a specific employer will be impressed by my two degrees, but I will have more options for potential careers because of my different areas of study. 

Furthermore, I don't think it's anyone's business but my own how long I attend school. I do think that it would be helpful for an adviser to make us aware of the time and money it will take. However, as long as we are fully aware of these potentials, it's no one's problem but our own. I want to get as much out of college as I can with the four years that I'm "allotted." I am a hard worker and intend to get it done in four years. Why should anyone tell me I can't? I'm paying for my education and I should get the maximum benefits that I so choose. 

mas30
mas30

I find this ridiculous many majors go along nicely together. I am currently in college right now and looking to pursue a double major and as of right now I will be graduating my time. Having a double major has just made me more responsible and a better planner due to the fact that I have more work and had to basically plan out the rest of my college career to make sure I graduate on time. I have many core classes I have to take along with gen eds that are required, however to make life easier on myself I plan on taking some courses in the summer and will probably do so the rest of my summers that I am in college. I would hate to not be as educated just because a statistic thinks I will drop out, which to me does not make sense because if someone is a double major they usually know that it will be twice the work and should prepare themselves for it. If it is not for them and they do not want to put in the effort then a student does not have to be a double major.

sda817
sda817

I graduated from a top-50 institution with 2 majors, 2 minors and a 3.88 GPA in 4 years.  I did come into college with some AP credits and those are wonderful for helping students pursing another major.  My program made me map out my coursework for the next 3 years when I applied for a second major but that was certainly not too difficult if you do not slack off.   I was a part of a fellowship program that required us all to take on a minor or a second major and to participate in your own original research.  I really think it is important to have a certain amount of depth and breadth to your degree(s) and to do things like study foreign languages and study abroad.  Unless you are in a highly technical field, you will not be focusing on a single area in the workplace and you will have to be flexible.  My majors often interacted and I was able to apply knowledge from one to the other.  In this day and age, being able to show that you understand how to maximize your opportunities to succeed is key.

rhlieberg
rhlieberg

I graduated in four years, from a private liberal arts college in Minnesota, while singing in choir on campus, participating in professional opera off campus, holding 2 part time jobs off campus and one job on campus, embracing the opportunity to study abroad for 6 months, changing my major and adviser more than once, presenting major research at multiple conferences across the nation, and enjoying every minute of it. I didn't know what I wanted to do, or who I wanted to be when I started college. When I finished my undergraduate education, (in four academic years), I walked across the stage with 3 majors. None of which I knew I would complete when I walked onto that campus.

I firmly believe that it is each student's responsibility to ask questions in order to better understand the graduation and major requirements that are being asked of each individual. On top of this, I believe it is the institution's responsibility to instill this strong sense of motivation and curiosity within each student, that becomes a catalyst for this kind of educational experience. We don't need to put limits on students or institutions in order to bump up our retention and graduation rates. Instead, we need to lift the barriers and encourage creativity and risk, while instilling a love for learning! Only then, will the weight of graduating in 4 years be lifted, while simultaneously allowing students the ability to grasp the true meaning of their investment, and milk it for all it is worth.

If a student wants to double major, by all means, allow her to do so. Then, help her to understand what it will take, and how long it will take her. If she still wants to do it, then encourage her, and light that fire. Hopefully she is at an institution that will HELP her do so in four years, instead of hinder her. The institution and the student want the same thing: to graduate in four years (or less). It shouldn't be so difficult that institutions are debating the enforcement of even more restrictions. 

How silly.


JenniferBonin
JenniferBonin

Sorry, but this is just idiotic.  Do people REALLY think that students who CHOOSE to double-major are the one's most likely to drop out?  Yes, I'll agree that doing the second major is likely to take an extra year or maybe two.  But that's it.  As the article notes, "those students who choose to double-major may be more motivated to begin with" -- which is only common sense.

As someone who majored in aerospace engineering and got a minor in astrophysics, I can tell you that if I'd gone for the second major rather than a minor, it would only have added one extra year (if I'd done them in parallel, at least).  There's no logical reason it would have made me consider dropping out!  And shouldn't it by MY choice whether I want to spend the time and money that extra year will cost me?

If people are worried about low graduation rates, how about if you stop focusing on the group of people most motivated to finish college, and worry about those who are dropping out before completing one, much less TWO degrees?!

sixtymile
sixtymile

Headline says "ban" storyline says "restrict".  Ban bogus headlining!!

ThomasCracksa
ThomasCracksa

@mjh5702 You're looking at it from a personal perspective. Of course you have liberty to take as long as you like but OVERALL, it's best for our country that our students become productive as quickly as possible especially as other competitive students from other countries are doing. It is very reasonable that they want to encourage these hastening policies, possibly as a primary method of maintaining our competitive edge in the global arena.

superlogi
superlogi

@JenniferBonin This has nothing to do with personal motivation  by the student but political expediency by the institution.  In my case, I too have two majors and two separate degrees, a BA in Biology and a BS in Chemistry from two different institutions (the second after serving in the military).  The second, took me about a year and a half.  Ten years later I went to a third institution to get an MBA in Finance & GM,  interestingly, the only degree which really did me much good.  All in all, I've spent a little over 6.5 years in post K-12 education, all I might add without borrowing a penny from anyone.


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