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Vanderbilt research: Support for double majors could pay major dividends

Vanderbilt Double Majors

Society needs innovative thinkers to tackle the complex problems of the 21st century, and colleges and universities may have unknowingly begun producing these thinkers among the ranks of their double major students, a new report from Vanderbilt University suggests.

“Integrative thinking is increasingly recognized as essential to solving complex 21st century problems like long-term poverty, global climate change and public health challenges,” sociologists Richard Pitt and Steven Tepper argue in their report Double Majors: Influences, Identities and Impacts, published recently by The Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University.

In the report, Pitt and Tepper call for faculty and administrators to catch up to their double majoring students and begin offering them more support.

“The vast majority of colleges and universities have no formal way of helping students integrate their majors,” the authors write. “Moreover, faculty and advisors are often subtly or openly hostile to the students’ second major.”

The researchers studied 1,760 undergraduate students at nine colleges and universities.

Think differently and creatively

They categorized double-majors into two types, hyper-specialization majors and hypo-specialization majors. Hyper-specialization majors pick two similar majors that blend easily, like economics and marketing. Hypo-specialization majors pick dissimilar majors, often balancing a hard science with something from the arts or humanities.

It’s the second type that most interests Pitt and Tepper.

“Many students report that their double major combination helps them think differently, solve intellectual puzzles and approach assignments more creatively,” write Pitt and Tepper. “These gains are greatest when students major in two disparate domains of knowledge, especially combining science with art and humanities.”

Double majors not overextended

In answer to the common criticism that double majors are overextended, Pitt and Tepper say their research shows that double majors are classic “do more, do more” students.”

“Compared to single majors, double majors are more active in extracurricular activities, more likely to be officers of clubs, more likely to participate in volunteer activities such as Alternative Spring Break, more likely to attend lectures outside of class and more likely to work with faculty on research and do independent/honors research,” write Pitt and Tepper.

The missing link in all of this is support from faculty and administrators, according to the report.

Steven Tepper (Vanderbilt)

“The rise of double majors is perhaps the most significant trend in the curricular lives of students in the last decade,” Pitt and Tepper assert. Yet students have done this on their own, while advisors and administrators “stood off to the side.”

“Institutions should proactively consider ways to help students integrate and synthesize across majors,” reads the report. “Faculty should explicitly encourage students to provide the perspective of their other major. … A largely invisible … resource for interdisciplinarity is our own students – who are like bees buzzing around campus, landing on different majors and domains of knowledge and who could, with some prodding, cross-pollinate our classrooms.”