Double Majors

A little over a year ago, I had the privilege of participating in a meeting at the Teagle Foundation in New York City (all decorated for Christmas!!) to discuss a pending report related to double majors. The report was based on research done by a team led by Steven Tepper and Richard Pitt out of Vanderbilt University’s Curb Center, using surveys, transcript analysis, interviews and focus groups conducted with students and faculty on various campuses, including Ohio State.

The report “Double Majors:  Influences, Identities and Impacts“, summarized findings of the study, which was funded by Teagle. The study involved approximately 1,760 undergraduate students at nine colleges and universities: two large comprehensive public universities (The Ohio State University and the University of Texas), three large comprehensive private universities (Duke University, Emory University, and Vanderbilt University), two medium-sized private universities (Dartmouth College and Trinity University), and two small liberal arts colleges (Knox College and The College of Wooster). The survey targeted students entering their seventh semester of college at each of the participating institutions. It’s focus was to analyze motivations, outcomes, and identities related to the growing trend toward multiple majors.

A number of OSU undergraduate students were surveyed, and participated in focus groups on campus. I then represented Ohio State in NYC to review the study and provide institutional perspectives. Below are several observations of the study.

First, as you can imagine, the differences in institutions were reflected in the results – students at different universities had different goals and reasons for pursuing a double major. Second, the number of students double majoring is definitely on the rise at most institutions, with white and asian students choosing to do it at higher rates than other minorities, and males and females doing at at about the same rate.

Students report that their double major combination helps them think differently, solve intellectual puzzles, and approach assignments more creatively. The report showed that these gains are greatest when students major in two disparate domains of knowledge, especially combining science with art and humanities. There are a large number of students who choose foreign language as their second major. Finally, double majoring doesn’t seem to impact a college student’s curricular and non-curricular life in negative ways: time to degree is almost exactly the same as single majors; double majoring, when one major is a foreign language, facilitates study abroad; double majors are more likely to work on independent research with faculty or take honors courses; and double majors generally feel more creative because of their combination of majors.

About one-third of the students double majored in the same domain of knowledge: two arts disciplines, humanities, physical sciences, or social sciences, for example. These students were labeled “deepeners” by the research team because their two majors allowed them to hyper-specialize in one domain.

About 10% of the students took their second major in quite different disciplines from their first, for example, one natural or physical science and one arts or humanities discipline. They were labeled by the team as “spanners” or “Renaissance students.” Their choices allowed them to bridge the furthest intellectual distance between the majors.

Dr. George Kuh, famous for his research on “High Impact Practices” of successful college students, stated in the foreword to this study:

Pitt and Tepper’s formidable analysis of the complex relationships between the desired outcomes of college and the various combinations of double majors raises as many questions as it answers. For example, many combinations of majors don’t seem to matter much in terms of patterns or magnitude of outcomes. Is this, as I suggested, primarily a function of faculty and advisors not requiring students to make connections between what they have learned in their classes and other experiences across their two major fields? Or are the theorized differences between disciplines that Biglan and others posited no longer meaningful in the learning environments and experiences of undergraduates today?

Will the hypo and super doubles described by Pitt and Tepper be even more creative and better integrators and synthesizers a year or more after college than they are now? In other words, perhaps the double major experience will have greater impact a year or more after graduation, when students are better able to reflect on, integrate, and apply their knowledge from those fields—the very conditions that might help them gain more from a double major in the first place.

Pitt and Tepper propose several recommendations for institutions to follow related to double majors, to help their students get the most out of this emerging approach to undergraduate education.

  1. Institutions should proactively consider ways to help students integrate and synthesize across majors. Schools should consider supporting (and possibly requiring) senior capstone projects – theses or independent studies – that force students to integrate across disciplines.
  2. In addition to a senior capstone or honors project, faculty across the university should be aware that a growing proportion of their students will have expertise in more than one domain of knowledge. Faculty should explicitly encourage students in class to provide the perspective of their other major.
  3.  If universities want to encourage creativity, they should promote hypo (spanning) rather than hyper (specialization) double majors. In particular, universities should ecnourage their science students to consider a second major or minor in an art or humanities area.
  4.  If the universities want students to synthesize knowledge across majors, they need to prime them to want to achieve this outcome.
  5. The benefits of double majoring – whether in terms of curricular advantages or post-baccalaureate outcomes – seem intimately related to the student’s own “story” for choosing their two majors.  Institutions could enlist their career services offices to help students write personal narratives about their choices of majors and how often seemingly different areas are actually part of a single educational story that matches a student’s identity and aspirations.
  6. Consider and mitigate the negative effects of the over-scheduled student. While most of our respondents indicated that they were up to the task of juggling the demands of two majors, many acknowledged the frantic lives they were living.
  7.  Institutions should consider the relative advantages and disadvantages of the “minor” verses the “major.”

At Ohio State, many students are choosing to engage with either a double major or a double degree. Each college in the University “owns” its degrees, and the major associated with that degree. Students who want a double major within the same college, for example Arts and Sciences or FAES, can in many cases overlap courses on either major with course work required for the General Education program, and in some cases can overlap courses required for each major. However, students who want to complete majors offered by separate colleges (for example, Business and Arts and Sciences) must generally complete two degrees, including the Gen Ed for both degrees, and completing a second degree often adds hours and degree requirements that extend well beyond the requirements for the major.

OSU is currently considering a proposal that would simplify these dual college requirements for completing two majors. To complete the second major, students would need to complete the requirements of both majors, but the breadth required by the Gen Ed could be satisfied with the second major, allowing a foregiveness of the need to complete  Gen Ed requirements of both degrees.

The entire report, Double Majors:  Influences, Identities and Impacts, can be downloaded from the Curb Center website at