Students with dual majors decline

Senior Sammy Wong will graduate in May with an unlikely combination of skills after double majoring in environmental studies and dance.

He is among the 13 percent of GW students in recent years who have pursued two majors, recently released data show. That figure falls below the rate at top universities nationwide, according to a national study released this month revealing that undergraduates who study in multiple fields gain an academic edge.

“Because they are so different, it’s like I have to use two different tools for thinking,” said Wong, who studies both fields in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. “Getting to study and explore two different fields and follow different passions, I think that I’ve broadened my education.”

The number of double majors has ticked down slightly over the past five years after peaking three years ago with 15 percent of graduates as double majors, though GW has increasingly stressed interdisciplinary learning.

GW also graduates fewer double majors than more elite universities such as Duke and Emory universities, which reported about 19 percent of students as double majors, a Vanderbilt University researcher found this month.

But administrators said they do not read that decline or the relatively small number of double majors as bad news.

Dan Ullman, Columbian College associate dean for undergraduate studies, said while the University needs to keep narrowing down its general requirements, he did not think double majoring was necessary to ensure deep learning.

“I think that if students chased majors and minors less than they do, they would instead be concentrating on courses that are best suited for them and that shape them best,” he said. “I don’t particularly believe this extra credential you get plays very much outside of GW. It’s what you know – not what you said you did.”

Administrators are still sketching out plans to make curriculums more flexible across schools and to promote interdisciplinary work. Most have admitted there are barriers for undergraduate students in different schools, like the GW School of Business and the Elliott School of International Affairs, that make it difficult or impossible for students to add second majors.

A signature piece of administrators’ near-final strategic plan is admitting students to the University as a whole instead of specific colleges. The University will also revamp training for academic advisers to help them direct students studying in multiple schools.

And the business school is close to launching a new finance degree program that would drastically decrease general business requirements, allowing those students to pick another academic interest as well.

“[Double majoring] should be easier for those students who want it,” Provost Steven Lerman said. “There should be less of ‘you can’t do A and B’ for reasons that are sometimes pretty obscure. But again, it all depends on the uptake, and for the students who want to do it, it will be easier for them.”

But Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and Planning Forrest Maltzman said GW had not been actively trying to raise the number of double majors, though he said he sees the benefits of students with multiple areas of expertise.

“It is one of many ways that interdisciplinary learning can manifest itself, but it is really just one,” Maltzman said.

The Vanderbilt University study, conducted by Steven Tepper, also showed that taking on two majors helps students think creatively and on a deeper level, especially when those majors are in totally different fields.

Tepper said GW also may have fewer double majors than peer schools not just because of curricular barriers, but because many of its degree programs like international affairs are already interdisciplinary. But, he said, learning two varied academic fields still gives students a leg up.

“Our research suggests that choosing two dissimilar majors may not have much impact on hiring, but may actually benefit student (in terms of income) 10 to 15 years in because of the critical thinking skills they’ve gained taking so many courses across the undergraduate curriculum,” he said.

Cory Weinberg contributed to this report.

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