November 17, 2002
For Students Seeking Edge, One Major Just Isn't Enough
aving honed the habit of achievement in the race to get into college, students are increasingly pursuing double, triple and even quadruple majors when they get there, amassing credentials they hope will show their diligence and, perhaps, give them an edge getting into graduate school or landing a job in a difficult market.
Katherine Lochbrunner was one of the superachievers, graduating from Boston University last spring with a quadruple major, in Hispanic language and literature, art history, Latin and classical civilization.
"I just couldn't narrow it down to one field, " said Ms. Lochbrunner, who now teaches Latin at St. Peter's Preparatory School in Jersey City. "I thought I'd do Spanish, but then I discovered how much I liked art history. And I thought four majors would be good at the point when I was looking for a job."
At Georgetown University, 23 percent of the 2002 graduates had double majors, compared with 14 percent of the class of 1996. At Washington University in St. Louis, 42 percent of last year's arts and science graduates had double majors or double degrees, compared with 28 percent of the 1997 graduates.
Nearly a quarter of the students in the University of Wisconsin at Madison's graduating class have double majors. But that no longer counts for too much: About 160 students are getting triple majors or more, and even quintuple majors are not unheard of.
Behind the trend, in part, is the fact that more freshmen now arrive on campus with extensive college credits from Advanced Placement exams, university summer school classes, or college courses they took in high school.
But other factors are at play.
For students who spent their high school years pursuing Advanced Placement credits, high test scores and prestigious extracurricular activities, the multiple major seems to be the Next Big Thing — even for freshmen, and parents of freshmen.
"All that pressure, all that push to give the child an edge, that you see around college admissions now continues into college, with many parents seeing the double major as the marker that this is a student doing all she can do," said Susan K. Jackson, senior associate dean at Boston University. "I was just at my son's parents weekend at Yale, at a faculty panel, where one parent went to the open mike and asked, in anguished tones, whether her daughter should be doing a double major. What she seemed to be saying was, `Is that the most ambitious thing? Is that what will give her the edge?' "
The faltering economy, with its dim job prospects for new graduates, plays a role, too.
"I think students are increasingly aware that they might have more than one career, that they might need expertise in a variety of areas," said Carol Christ, the president of Smith College. "They have a very savvy eye out to what's going to pay the rent."
Many educators are dubious that multiple majors do students much good once they leave college.
"My suspicion is that they're more valuable to the seller than the buyer," said Mark Schenker, Yale College's dean of academic affairs.
Still, multiple majors believe they should be especially marketable.
"I'm hedging my bets," said Elisabeth Thompson, who is majoring in mathematics, Spanish and computer science at Madison. "The more fields I am prepared or qualified to work in, the less I have to worry about problems in any given industry," Ms. Thompson said.
Cheryl Biel, George Washington University's director of academic planning and assessment, said this generation is trying hard to cover all the bases: "These are the same kids trying to get all the internships. It may be a kid doing pre-med, but they want an interesting nonscience major that will show they're a broad person, and give them an edge for med school."
But administrators at some schools worry that meeting all the departmental requirements stops multiple majors from sampling a broad liberal arts education.
Then, too, some college officials doubt that double majors confer any real benefit in graduate school admissions or the job market. Some advise students to use extra credits to graduate early and get a master's degree, rather than taking five years to complete three or four undergraduate majors, as many want to do.
Still, many schools are seeing a steady rise in double majors. The increase has been especially striking at George Washington University, which has 486 double majors this fall, compared with 70 a decade earlier.
The trend is less evident at the most selective institutions, including those in the Ivy League, where the use of Advanced Placement credits is increasingly restricted.
But at many schools, the lure of multiple majors has become so strong, administrators say, that some freshmen announce their intent to double major even before they have chosen a single area of interest. "We get a lot of freshmen who come in saying they definitely want a double major, but when we ask in what, they have no idea what they want to study," said Timothy Walsh, director of Wisconsin's Cross-College Advising Service. "They just think they have to double major to look serious."
At Wisconsin, many of the multiple majors stick to related fields: combinations like physics, astrophysics, math and computer science, or zoology, biology and environmental studies are common.
That seems to be less true at small liberal arts colleges, though. At Colorado College, for example, where double majors won formal recognition only five years ago, most are used to following far-flung interests.
"Most of our double majors have one major in the area where they think their professional specialty will be and another that reflects a very different interest, like a pre-med biology major who's also majoring in French," said Timothy Fuller, a political science professor who was dean when the Colorado College faculty approved double majors.
Occasionally, combinations represent a compromise: where the mother is pushing for law school, for example, and the son wants to pursue ethnomusicology, a "one for me, one for Mom" double major in political science and music can keep the whole family happy.
Dustin Harber arrived in Madison last year as a freshman expecting to double major in computer science and Japanese. But already, in his second year, he's doubled again, and now plans a quadruple major in computer science, Japanese, math and Asian studies.
"I knew I could fit in several majors because I got here with A.P. credits in calculus, English lit, English language, computer science, U.S. history, government and something else I must be forgetting," he said. "Then I got a lot of credits for all the Japanese courses I placed out of."
Mr. Harber, who also holds two part-time jobs, does not go around bragging about his quadruple major.
"I usually tell people I'm doing three, because if I say I'm doing four majors, they call me a psycho and think I'm this big overachiever trying to make myself look better," he said. "But I'm just a regular student, trying to get everything I can out of college. I am planning to go to grad school in computer science, which is pretty competitive, and if they see I have computer science and math, and this other interest too, I hope they'll think, `Hey, this candidate is well rounded.' "
For many students like Mr. Harber, who managed a tough course load and many activities in high school, hard work seems normal, while the idea of slacking off, or using all those credits to graduate early, holds little interest.
Corey Chapman, a UCLA senior majoring in English and history, said the drive of the incoming freshmen was striking last summer, when he was one of the university's orientation counselors, assigned to answer freshmen questions, some of which concerned multiple majors.
"I think they feel like they still have to be complete overachievers," Mr. Chapman said. "It was like they just had to do more. They asked when you can declare a double major and which A.P. credits would apply. I had to tell them the rules changed since I got here, and you can't use those credits to fill requirements as much anymore. And I tried to say that their A.P.'s had helped them get into UCLA, but now that they're here they should try to have some fun and explore new ideas."
While students are showing growing interest in multiple majors, there is still considerable debate in academia about whether that is good or bad. A few colleges are resisting the trend to multiple majors, seeking, instead, to help undergraduates experience the broadest possible liberal arts education.
"We think you miss out if you focus on one or two areas," said Ellen Guyer, dean of academic programs at Macalester College in Minnesota. "One reason you come to a liberal arts college is to take courses in areas you never even heard of, intriguing courses that broaden your world view and expose you to new ideas. About a third of the students in our last graduating class had double majors, but we're trying to discourage it. Some students feel it makes them more marketable, that if you add up credentials, more is better. Whether that has any validity after college is anybody's guess."