Thursday, November 04, 2010

Double Majors and Graduation Rates

We have a fair number of students doing a double major rather than a more traditional major and minor. We have some doing a double major and a minor. Some doing a major and two minors.

I was talking to a student the other day who's thinking of doing a double major, changing his current English minor to a major. It would take him at least an extra semester (he's well along in the minor, so he's not starting from scratch).

Why, I asked, after making clear that I'll do the paper work if he really wants me to.

He answered that he thought having two majors would make it easier to get a job.

So we talked. It's not my impression that having two majors makes it easier to get a job, unless one of those majors is in a really specific job field (such as nursing). But having two liberal arts majors isn't a huge advantage over having a major and a minor, so far as I can tell.

And it costs a lot. With books and food and a place to live, a semester here can cost more than $8K. (I realize you're laughing at that if you're somewhere that costs 40K a year, but we're not.)

There are good reasons to spend that 8K. If you think your happiness depends on a couple of courses, then that's money well spent. If you absolutely can't live without this major, then again, money well spent. But if your aim is to get a job, and the job title isn't "English major" then my sense is that it really doesn't matter.

We have a less than stellar four year graduation rate, though that's something the state and our own administration would like to change. And there's good reason to wish that more students could graduate in 4 years.

We have a pretty good five year rate, and a better 6 year rate, but the four year rate is low. I'm guessing there's a certain percentage of students who think that the opportunity cost of going for an extra semester or two is worth it if they can get an extra major on their transcript, because if one is good, then two must be better!

I sent the student off to talk to his other major advisor and to think about the costs before we did the paperwork (which, again, I am happy to do if he really does want to stay an extra semester).

The important question is about whether there really is an advantage to students in doing a second major rather than a major and a minor? What say you, wisdom of the internet? Do they learn a full year's worth of additional skills towards employment, or would they be better off graduating and getting on with their lives? (Yes, I know the economy sucks right now, but we still have a pretty darned impressive employment after graduation rate.)


  1. i dunno. sounds like this student is not ready to dive into what comes after college, whatever that might be.

    i needed to find something to move on to after 4 years -- i was supporting myself and no way could i justify another year of undergrad. of course, i went to law school next, because the thought of a few years in retail sales was enough to really stimulate my interest in law. plus i wanted to do good.

    my husband was a chemistry major, and went back to do a second BS in chemical engineering. he had a job path in mind with that second degree, but the market collapsed by the time he got it.

    i think you are giving good advice.

  2. I agree with kathy a.--you gave the student good advice.

    And here, let me make you feel better about your four-year graduation rate: Ours is 7 percent. Six-year is still only 28 percent.

    We're #1!!!! (in the nation in sophomore drop-out rates in higher ed)

  3. I can't imagine that two majors will help them get a job more than a major and a minor will.

    But if they want to transfer or go on to an MA or a PhD, then having two majors lets them keep their options open about what field they want to continue in academically.

    Also, only relevant to those who want to continue in academic life: I've sometimes got TA work in subjects that were my second (and third!) majors, and I don't know whether I would have got that work without an undergrad major - or at least not without some of those 300-level courses that got me that major.

  4. I am sure this varies by school, but none of the double majors I knew in college took longer than four years to graduate. In this case, the cost argument isn't as relevant.

  5. Interesting! I just had a conversation with a student about this... she had a single major and minor, but most of her friends were double majors, and she was beginning to panic that she was going to miss out on job opportunities by not having a double major. (she's a liberal arts student.) I told her pretty much the same thing - she's exceptionally talented, and she's got all the basic skills that we promise with the liberal arts, so I don't think the second major would do her much good on the job market. Nice to see some backup for that here, though.