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A Minor Problem II

We’re spending two days on minors at the college. If you haven’t, read this article, which we’ll be covering, before proceeding to the excerpted text below:

Having established how minors better illustrate an applicant’s areas of specialization to employers, and why specialization is even important in one’s education to begin with, we can now examine how minors could help support a diverse education in particular. Currently, about 38 percent of students at the College double major. Double majors take up a significant fraction of one’s education, and ought to be pursued by a more limited group of students to whom a pair of majors confers some unique value in light of their interests. At a school where breadth and diversity, especially in coursework, are core tenets of the education, it’s surprising that such a wide swath of the student body pours their academic careers primarily into two areas of study. But, this phenomenon is not a reflection of a student body that is set on double majoring. At Dartmouth, a slightly larger institution which is less devoted to the liberal arts than here, only about 15 percent of the students double major. This is because 30 percent of students at Dartmouth graduate with a minor.

While I duly commend our student authors for coming at Dartmouth sideways like that (“less devoted” to the liberal arts? Ouch!),  I think they’re burying the lede somewhat. Why does anyone care about minors to begin with? I doubt it’s a money thing. We went over this briefly yesterday, but, all save for the most optimistic would agree that minors are usually of middling value in the job market.

The only serious reason remaining for pursuing a minor (other than vanity) is for the structure that a minor degree builds into your education. And that’s what we should really be worried about: are students flocking towards supernumerary minors and majors because so much of their non-major coursework lacks coherence, and structure?

That explanation satisfies me, at least more thoroughly than any other. For all their great talent and alleged intelligence, Williams students are still very young and mostly untutored. It’s not strange that they’d want guidance. And, I think we realize that! We require faculty advising for first-years, major advising for upperclassmen, and staff bespoke academic advisers for near everything else — law school, medical school, foreign service, study abroad.

Why can’t we do something similar for non-major coursework? Granted, there are problems with advising, and giving every student an academic adviser for all four years would be impractical, but, given how often and loudly we hype the value of liberality in education, we ought to at least be doing something to make sure students are proceeding through their out-of-major classes in a way that’s thoughtful.

Comments welcome — particularly from ephs in academia (of which there are a few.)


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#1 Comment By David Dudley Field ’24 On June 9, 2016 @ 5:21 pm

Currently, about 38 percent of students at the College double major. Double majors take up a significant fraction of one’s education, and ought to be pursued by a more limited group of students to whom a pair of majors confers some unique value in light of their interests.

I am always suspicious when Williams student A asserts that Williams student B is making a poor choice. Why do Lee and Stark think that they know better than their fellow Ephs whether or not those other Ephs should double major?I might be true, in a few cases, that some Ephs are overestimating the impact that being a double major will have on their career or graduate school prospects. But the vast majority of Ephs who double major are making an informed choice. It is unlikely that Lee/Stark know any better.

A related question is why so many Ephs double major. I have not studied this question nearly as closely as I should, but here are some thoughts:

1) Most Williams majors only have 9 courses, so getting another major is not that costly. For example, it seems that Dartmouth requires 11 (maybe 12?) courses for the economics major. Given that it is 20% to 25% more costly to double major at Dartmouth than at Williams, is it any surprise that fewer Dartmouth kids do it?

2) Williams has fewer non-major requirements than other schools, and those requirements are generally more easily fulfilled. Harvard, for example, requires 8 Gen Ed classes, many of which can not count for any major. At Williams, the three courses in each division can all include courses for the major.

#2 Comment By David Dudley Field ’24 On June 9, 2016 @ 5:31 pm

My biggest complaint with the original article concerns this passage.

Selecting a major is a difficult decision. Many students don’t wish to limit their specialization to one field. But at the College, without minors, a double major is the only remaining option for these students.

Untrue! Scores of Williams students take 4, 5, 6 or more classes in a given field every year. In essence, they are have a “minor” in that field in all but name. To pretend that students can’t do this is a poor rhetorical choice.

For a student set to pursue an economics major with an interest in gaining a solid math background, the idea of a math minor is likely quite appealing. The minor ensures that the student’s strong math background would not be overlooked in the job search process.

There is no evidence that this, in fact, happens. (And very few people have looked at more Williams resumes than I have over the last decade.) Almost all students who want to show an area of expertise that is outside their major (most commonly done with respect to economics, mathematics and computer science, I think) just list the courses that they have taken. I doubt that having an official minor would provide any added value over that listing.

And, if Middlebury’s experience is any guide, the departments (like economics) in which the demand for an minor was greatest would be precisely those departments who refused to offer one.

Regardless, thanks to Eph ’20 for bringing this article to our attention. We should spend more time discussing Record op-eds at EphBlog.