Pale-orange “I DECLARED!” stickers ostensibly come in pairs, and even as three or four or more. Ask any member of a two-thousand-something-teen class: if they aren’t themselves double-majoring, then they know at least five others who are. During Declaration of Major Day—K’s winter holiday for sophomore students—K provides undergraduates a forum to publically proclaim their academic pursuits. This opportunity to affix badges of honor (or gaudy symbols of perceived status) to the front of t-shirts and notebooks provides a glimpse into an academic phenomenon gripping this generation.
K is double-major manic; there are two and a half times more students graduating with two or more majors than ten years ago, and the Class of 2017 is projected to surpass a 25% double-major composition. Complementary majors, like math and physics or biology and chemistry, have seen tremendous growth at the expense of the arts and humanities. While some laud K students’ interdisciplinary explorations, others cite siloing as cause for concern and an affront to K’s cherished liberal arts education. Are students simply affirming lifelong dreams, or oversubscribing in order to conform to academic pressures? Students’ decisions are complex and multifaceted—but have they chosen correctly?
Open Curriculum: The Cause?
“I think that because there are fewer distribution requirements, students are more able to do a double major,” said Anne Dueweke, her eyes fixed to a graph on the screen. Dueweke, the Director of Faculty Grants and Institutional Research, had agreed to walk The Index through institutional data collected during the past decade.
K is double-major manic: there are two and a half times more students graduating with two or more majors than ten years ago.
“There are [now] fewer distributional requirements, and so the major looms larger,” she continued, noting the College’s decision to eliminate certain general education requirements from the curriculum in 2009.
The graph showed a consistent rise in the percent of students double-majoring between 2006 and 2016. The increase was particularly notable for the years that followed 2009. Just four years later, the percent of students graduating with two majors had swelled another 8%, indicating that the open curriculum’s implementation shaped 2009’s matriculating class.
Beyond the data, Dueweke had her own thoughts to share.
“I don’t see [double-majoring] as inherently bad. If [students] truly love both disciplines, then it’s a good thing. If it is just for another credential, then I’m not so enthusiastic.”
Although a “tough job market” faces new graduates, Dueweke doesn’t find that a second major gives students a competitive edge. “I personally do not believe it is necessary to have more than one major,” she said.
One Is Enough
Biology professor Dr. Binney Girdler has earned herself a reputation amongst science students as a ‘discourager of doublers.’ “I want to get rid of those stickers,” she laughed, referring to the pale-orange ‘I DECLARED’ tags.
Dr. Girdler’s stance is clear: “eroding the liberal arts education are doubles within the same division,” she explained, making special reference to students doubling in both biology and chemistry, or math and physics. “You don’t have time to see the world the way an artist sees the world because you are working on a biology major and a chemistry major and a neuroscience concentration,” continued Dr. Girdler, adamantly advocating the advantages of educational breadth offered at liberal arts colleges.
Eroding the liberal arts education are doubles within the same division.
Her comments echo a five-year trend wherein the number of graduating majors are skewed toward the sciences.
Dr. Girdler herself came one class short of a second Bachelor’s in English while studying at the University of Virginia. She, however, has no regrets. “The transcript matters more than the heading,” said Dr. Girdler, alleging that her full transcript was evaluated for every position she has interviewed for “and I’ve never had that fail me.”
Dr. Girdler offered that students should instead explore their interests through extracurricular activities or their Senior Individualized Project. “We need to do a better job advising students that exploring multiple passions doesn’t mean pursuing multiple majors, because excessive credentialing will do you no good. After all, it’s a major undertaking—that’s why it’s called a major.”
A Generational Difference
“Religion is one of those majors that has traditionally attracted double-majors. Most of our students are double-majors,” said Dr. Carol Anderson. “I see [double-majoring] as something that has always been a part of Kalamazoo College.”
Dr. Anderson discussed the common pairing of the degrees in the humanities—like English and Religion—as well as students who study both a natural or social science and religion. “I think this is a good thing. I think it’s an interesting way to look at breadth.”
But shortly after broaching the topic of breadth, Dr. Anderson paused and corrected herself. “Actually, there are generational differences in ways of defining what breadth means. Your generation of students is more interested in knowing something well than knowing many things superficially through a smattering of courses. Students today are acutely aware of their lack of knowledge on a topic and uncomfortable with not having expertise, and this is a different conception of breadth and expertise [than before].”
Your generation of students is more interested in knowing something well than knowing many things superficially through a smattering of courses.
Dr. Anderson suggested that a fear of inadequacy drove students to silo themselves within a division. “If students and faculty are concerned about lack of breadth, then it would be interesting to see how many double-majors there are within each division,” she probed.
Oft cited by students and faculty are the scheduling conflicts and sacrifices associated with double majoring. “There are costs associated with double-majoring,” Dr. Anderson admitted, “but there’s no compelling reason to tell students not to double.”