The Hidden Cost Of A Double Major

Academia needs to break down these silos.

Of the millions of young people entering college for the first time this fall, approximately one in four of them will make a terrible mistake that will cost them time, money, and most importantly, impede the fundamental purpose of their college experience. They are… double majoring.

With all the issues on campuses these days, why is double majoring such a big problem? Because it’s emblematic of an academic system that is more focused on having students jump over bureaucratic hurdles than providing students with the experiences they need to succeed in today’s increasingly complex world.

Nationally, the number of students choosing to double major has increased by more than half since 2000. In my 12 years of teaching at UC Santa Cruz, I’ve seen it go from a relatively rare occurrence to an obsession.

Consider this scenario I’ve witnessed dozens of times. One of my best students, a double major, took a a summer session course to ensure she’d graduate on time. She paid twice as much in tuition for the class, mostly through loans, and spent nearly 40 hours of her summer break in a classroom and a library. The course focused on an interesting topic but was not well-taught from her perspective. Still, she paid the money and suffered through it because the courses are so impacted during the year that she felt she had no choice.

Think about all the opportunities she missed because she took that class: volunteering, interning, reading books she wanted to read, gaining work experience, starting a small Etsy business, and having fun with her friends before they all go on their separate ways. She lost more than 40 hours of precious time she will never get back in order to fulfill a requirement for a second major that serves little to no purpose academically or professionally.

Those who choose to double major also throw away the chance to learn about subjects outside of their primary focus — art, theater, science, history — subjects that they’ll likely never have the opportunity to study thoroughly again. To this day, I wish I’d taken an architecture course in college, and now with a career and kids, the chance that of that happening is extremely low.

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Students are not the only ones to blame for this trend. Some universities and majors make it difficult for students to take upper division outside their major. Academia needs to break down these silos – the value and competitive advantage for universities is having faculty and students who can work across disciplines for a world that needs and rewards multifaceted teams to solve complex problems.

Double majoring is an especially misguided choice for students who choose majors that are similar in substance or approach — political science and history, for example. These students are squandering their unique opportunity to explore entirely new subjects and ways of thinking. In doing so, they miss the opportunity to become smart generalists, which would allow them to navigate the ever-evolving job market after college. What’s more valuable, a history/political science double major or a political science major who has taken classes on marketing and entrepreneurship?

The one notable exception to this scenario is those students aspiring to super-specialize in an area they are passionate about. For example, a student majoring in engineering and Spanish with the intention of working on infrastructure projects in South America. If that’s the case, double major away.

The saddest examples of lost opportunities and increased costs are for first-generation college students who choose to double major because they see it doubling the value of their education. They pack their schedules to fulfill requirements rather than making connections, gaining experiences and building the networks they’ll need to compete with students from more prosperous backgrounds who are able to leverage their parents’ connections.

With so much of the higher education experience out of the student’s control — tuition costs, over-extended faculty members, more competition for fewer spaces — dropping the double major is one simple action they can and should do.

Ryan Coonerty teaches legal studies and politics at UC Santa Cruz.

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