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Double majors

Grinnell has experienced a recent growth in the number of students who choose two majors, our so-called double majors. When I started at Grinnell [1], slightly more than 10% of students had two majors. At present, about 30% of students have two majors. Those numbers have grown in fits and starts. As recently as four years ago, only 20% of students had two majors. Of course, the percentage was a bit higher five years ago.

I’ve heard many colleagues decry this trend. And, in many ways, it is problematic. Students with two majors have enough constraints [2] on their schedules that it can be difficult to advise them through the complexities of building a strong liberal arts education. Sometimes it is hard to coordinate with their other advisor.

Many seem to think that students double major because they have a misguided belief that they need two majors for some kind of credentialing. But the issue appears to be more complex than that. So, let me consider some of the reasons that students choose two majors.

Whether we like it or not, credentialing can be an issue in some fields. I think, for example, of a Physics major who graduated from our department who took most of the CS major and excelled in every class. Yet they had difficulty finding the caliber of computing job that was appropriate for them because they did not have the imprimatur of a degree in CS [3]. As importantly, I believe that our international students need to do their OPT in a field related to their area of training [4]. And OPT gets extended for STEM professions. Hence, if our students want to stay in the U.S. to work in a STEM field, they need to major in that STEM field.

Those of you who attended the May 2017 Grinnell graduation may recall that the legendary Kumail Nanjiani ’00 said something like I studied Philosophy because it was my passion. I studied Computer Science because I didn’t want my parents to disown me [5]. He’s not alone in facing that dilemma. Both international and domestic students face real and imagined pressures from parents to study certain fields. Their parents won’t be satisfied unless they major in one of a few areas [6]. In contrast, the students really do want to study deeply in another area. Double majors are the natural compromise. And parents are complicated, I’ve heard from some students that not only do their parents want them to major in CS, they forbid them to add a second major in another field [7].

There are also a host of incentives to declare particular majors. You get free music lessons if you major in music [8,9]. You probably can’t take an Economics seminar unless you are an Econ major. For the near future, you may not be able to take an upper-level CS course unless you are a CS major. You won’t be cut from one of the cool 200-level Studio Art classes if you are a Studio Art major [10]. In fact, most departments naturally prioritize their majors in their upper-level classes. If you really want to take those courses, you declare a major in the department [11].

We’ve covered three major pressures: external incentives, such as OPT, that lead to students needing credentials; pressure from family members; and internal incentives for students who want certain courses or options. Those are fairly strong pressures.

I also know that there are many more that I have not yet considered. I recall hearing from a student that they were studying CS because they enjoyed it, but majoring in it because they knew that when they did their mandatory military service, it would lead to something less risky than the default infantry role. That’s a really strong incentive.

So, the next time you are inclined to complain about the number of Grinnell students (or students in general) who have two majors, just remember that there are probably good reasons for many of them to have declared two majors. If you really object, work to change the system that incentivizes double majors. I’d rather spend my time on other issues, and so I accept that we’ll have double majors.

[1] Okay, that was two decades ago.

[2] Real and imagined.

[3] Some places think it’s necessary that students have a BS in CS, even though an analysis of the degree requirements suggests that our BA students must take the course that often distinguishes BA students from BS students at institutions that award both degrees.

[4] Yup, the guidance from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services indicates that All OPT must be directly related to the student’s major area of study.

[5] I admit to taking liberties with his statement.

[6] Or at least the students don’t think their parents will be satisfied.

[7] I’ve talked to a student whose parents told them not to major in Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies because it would decrease their marketability. I’ve talked to another whose parents see no reason for them to major in Religious Studies.

[8] I believe that benefit shows up on the Why major in music? poster.

[9] All students now get one free sequence of music lessons per semester. Music majors get as many as they want, or at least as many as their advisor permits them to take. I know of at least one who is studying three different instruments and voice.

[10] Other students also get into the 200-level Studio Art courses. But some students want to be confident that they’ll get in.

[11] From one perspective, it makes sense that students who want to take upper-level classes in a discipline would naturally want to major in the discipline. But there are many cases in which students would like to take a series of five or so courses that lead to an upper-level course without taking the full eight or so courses required of most majors. Our incentive structure discourages them from the five or so courses path [12].

[12] Of course, since it feels like many staffing decisions are affected by the number of majors, the College effectively incentivizes departments to have more majors, which may lead departments to incentivize students to declare.

Version 1.0 of 2017-11-21.