The Double Major Bind

I was talking to a professor at the University of California, San Diego, at a dinner party earlier this year about colleges (naturally) and we ended up discussing why it’s taking so long for kids to get college degrees today.

At UCSD the four-year graduation rate is 53%. While that number is underwhelming for a top research university, if you read my blog last week you’d know that the national average for public universities is far worse — 28%. (Find the four-year grad rate for any school here.)

The UCSD professor told me that one significant reason why kids at her school — and I assume elsewhere — aren’t getting out on time is because they are double majoring.

Students feel they have to distinguish themselves from their peers as they position themselves for careers. They believe obtaining a double major is a way to do it.

A story earlier this year in The New York Times explored the phenomenon of kids minoring in a subject or getting double majors.

One of the experts who is quoted in the article was Barmak Nassirian, who happened to endorse my book. Here is what he had to say:

“We are running out of the traditional tools with which superb students can sort of document how good they are,” says Barmak Nassirian, spokesman for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. “It used to be enough that you graduated from X, Y or Z university with summa cum laude. But now instead of separating you from the crowd, summa cum laude is the crowd. Some students are resorting to double degrees, two majors, majors and two minors, the sort of degree accomplishments that would have been unnecessary a generation or two ago.”

When you are mulling over your choices for a college major, ask schools what their four-year graduation rate is for students who minor in an additional subject or double major.

Here’s another thought: If getting out in four years is impossible or extremely difficult for double majors at a particular institution, maybe a student should settle for one major and then spend the extra year or two getting a master’s degree.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also writes a college blog for

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