How Does Your University Count Double Majors?


The philosophy major program at the University of Nebraska, Kearney (UNK) is facing elimination, mainly over issues of low enrollments and numbers of majors, and one issue of contention between UNK’s Department of Philosophy and administration is how students double-majoring in philosophy and another field should be counted.

[photo and arrangement by Sakir Gökçebag]

Inside Higher Ed reports that one “point of contention between administration and faculty is the actual number of philosophy majors. UNK administration counts three; Rozema counts eight, including double majors. ‘My understanding is that there is a true distinction between a double major and an individual major,’ Bicak [UNK’s senior vice chancellor for academic and student affairs] said.”

At your university or college, how are philosophy majors who are also majoring in another discipline counted for the purposes of determining how many philosophy majors there are? Does it matter which major was declared first?

Philosophy departments tend to rely on double-majors for enrollments. As Eric Schwitzgebel (Riverside) wrote in 2018:

In all, 24,542 students earned a Philosophy major, of which 5,015 (20.4%) earned it as a second major. At a minimum, then, 20% of Philosophy majors are double majors. If half of those double majors choose to list Philosophy as their first major, then 40% of Philosophy majors in the U.S. are double majors. Unfortunately, the NCES database doesn’t allow us to see how many of the people with first majors in Philosophy also had second majors in something else. Forty percent might be too high an estimate, if double majors who have Philosophy as one of their majors disproportionately list Philosophy as their second major. But even if 30%, rather than 40%, of Philosophy majors carry Philosophy along with some other major, that is still a substantial proportion.

Here’s another way of looking at the data: 0.3% of students choose Philosophy as a first major, while among those who decide to take a second major, 1.7% choose Philosophy.

Discussion welcome.

guest
17 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Ian Werkheiser
8 months ago

At my university, I believe it’s the case that the major that is listed first in their transcript is the one that “counts” for a department. The default is for the major they sign up for first chronologically to be listed first, but the student can request them to be listed in any order they’d like on their transcript. As a result, we’ve had some success asking our double majors to consider putting philosophy first if it isn’t already. It makes no difference in terms of their graduation requirements, but if the student thinks of themselves primarily as studying philosophy, they’re usually happy to learn they can have that reflected in their transcript and eventual diploma.Report

Michael Norton
Michael Norton
Reply to  Ian Werkheiser
8 months ago

This is more or less how it’s been at my university too. We’ve also had some success at getting our administration to consider “primary and secondary” majors (i.e., both majors in cases of students double majoring) in at least some enrollment reports. This tends to make a difference of anywhere from 15-30% in our major counts.Report

Josh Brown
8 months ago

At my SLAC, there’s no difference in treatment of single and double majors.Report

Marcus Arvan
Marcus Arvan
Reply to  Josh Brown
8 months ago

Same here.Report

Chris Surprenant
8 months ago

At the University of New Orleans, students who double major end up counting towards both program’s numbers. At one point a few years ago, the policy was to count only the student’s “first major,” but that created all sorts of problems with faculty and departments telling students to change the order of their major, programs fighting with each other, etc., so someone in the administration actually did something sensible and changed the counting policy.

Also and unrelated, I’m surprised to hear that they’re fighting over 8 or 3. Neither of those numbers justifies sustaining a program. More philosophy faculty at schools like this need to be proactive about finding ways to keep philosophy in the curriculum. Many of these schools would probably be better off having a general “humanities” degree, with different tracks that align with interdisciplinary themes instead of traditional academic departments of programs. It’s probably better for all of these smaller schools if the faculty from history, political science, philosophy, sociology, etc., work together to provide opportunities for students, rather than competing against each other for students.Report

tenure track
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
8 months ago

Chris (if I may),

You write “I’m surprised to hear that they’re fighting over 8 or 3. Neither of those numbers justifies sustaining a program. More philosophy faculty at schools like this need to be proactive about finding ways to keep philosophy in the curriculum.” It seems like you’re conflating having majors with being an integral part of the curriculum. My relatively crappy liberal arts college has anywhere from 4-10 majors at any given point, but our classes almost always fill and we’re part of a number of programs, such as nursing, neuroscience, and business. Report

Chris Surprenant
Reply to  tenure track
8 months ago

Ah, yes, you’re right — “keep philosophy in the curriculum” was far too vague. Let me try to separate them because they’re different issues and how you separate them is important.

The challenge for many of us at small(er) state schools is that if philosophy (or any discipline) is merely a service department/program/unit, then administrators are justified getting rid of the tenured/tt faculty via program elimination and just having instructors or adjuncts to teach the courses needed to serve those other programs. So, even if we’re successful at integrating ourselves into other curricula, getting on the gen ed menus, etc., we can still get screwed if we don’t have enough completers.

For many of us that are struggling with enrollments in our more traditional philosophy programs, our options are either to modify these more traditional programs in ways that might appeal to our students, or push for significantly more drastic modifications to college curricula that gets us around the completer problem.

At UNO, for example, our former chair saw this problem coming for us three years ago. I was in the process of creating a new public policy, ethics, and law program, and he asked me if I’d run this program as a concentration of the philosophy degree program. That was approved by my colleagues and two years later about 45% of the ~60 majors are first, second, and third year students in this concentration. I’d say “completer problem solved,” but due to some political issues my colleagues are actually going to vote to eliminate the concentration and turn us into a low completer program. Apparently they’d rather have that happen than have students graduate with a philosophy BA coming out of a program they claim is “not philosophy.” Shrug.

The second way of going is more dramatic. I think a lot of philosophy, history, sociology, etc., departments should be pushing for these schools to eliminate the degrees in those specific disciplines and push for some sort of generic humanities, arts & sciences, or some other type of degree, then creating various concentrations under that more generic degree that would be appealing to different students and where some of these more traditional programs can attract more students. So, for example, let’s say you have an A&S degree and under it you have a concentration like, “Nature and God,” which could include courses in philosophy, history, religious studies, environmental science, sociology, geography, etc. You could do all sorts of things depending on student interests, faculty expertise, local culture, etc., and since you’re dealing with concentrations and not degree programs, you can add new ones and remove obsolete or unpopular ones fairly quickly. Even better, since tenure would attach to a degree program (i.e., the A&S degree), you wouldn’t see tenured faculty get fired due to program discontinuation.

Anyway, my point is that philosophy faculty need to be more strategic about how they approach these things and start thinking about changes when they see problems coming, rather than when they find themselves in the middle of a nightmare situation. But it’s far easier said than done. For all of the left-leaning faculty at universities, they’re incredibly conservative institutions, and humanities faculty members seem especially resistant to any sort of disciplinary change.Report

Jeff
Jeff
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
8 months ago

My SLAC hired consultants and they offered this type of advice, so I think this is a conversation more departments are going to have in the future. My main question–not exactly an objection–is about long-term staffing. Though combining several traditional majors into a new division may save the jobs of people currently in tenured (or maybe even tenure-track) lines, I have a harder time envisioning how retiring lines are staffed (if at all). Does the retiring historian in a division get replaced by a historian, or does the division do a broad open call for a generic humanities person, even if this means bringing in someone trained in religious studies? Or, does this approach make it easier for colleges to staff retiring lines by adjuncts?

I also appreciate your point about resistance to change. I think it is worth having conversations about when this resistance is principled and necessary, and when it keeps programs from doing the types of things that will attract students in ways that will create new lines for philosophers (while upholding what we take to be important disciplinary standards).Report

Chris Surprenant
Reply to  Jeff
8 months ago

All important points and concerns, Jeff. And I have no good answers for all of these problems, but I do have more cautionary tales!

So, for example, our history and philosophy departments got combined a few years ago, and it has led to some really weird internal fighting. For example, a handful of the historians opposed us creating the public policy, ethics, and law concentration in philosophy because they were worried about it being successful, and, as a result, would divert resources (future hires, presumably) from the “history side” of the department to the “philosophy side.” They had concerns, in part, because they’re trying to run an MA program and seem legitimately understaffed. It got to the point where the department’s representative on the college c&c committee (an historian and one of the voices of opposition) started sabotaging some of the course proposals and other things connected to the concentration.

I mention this story in part because these concerns you identify are real. So you combine all of the humanities faculty into one super department, how do you do the hiring? This is why I think non/inter-disciplinary tracks are important and having faculty members seeing their positions and courses as falling within multiple tracks. I think if people see their jobs as being secure and you don’t allocate resources like a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos, you’ll probably end up with a better situation for faculty and students.

I have no idea how this would work at a university like UNO where part of the problem comes from a tension between the needs of our undergraduate and graduate programs. If you still have a history MA program, but then don’t have a history BA and, instead, have a generic humanities BA with a bunch of different tracks, some of which are relevant to historians, you’re going to end up with the historians lobbying for more historians to support the MA program. Of course, sorting this stuff out and making sure things are balanced would be the job of a competent dean, but then that dean would need to be someone who buys into this kind of program and is willing to call faculty members out when they’re trying to do what’s best for them instead of the college as a whole.

Here, small(er) colleges seem to have a distinct advantage. They can be more nimble and otherwise respond faster to changing student needs. With that said, these schools also more frequently have “lifer” faculty members who are the ones more frequently resist change, especially when it is being imposed on them by a newly-hired administrator who is likely to want to make changes for the sake of changes, seemingly for the purpose of moving on to bigger and better jobs elsewhere.Report

Laura Grams
Laura Grams
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
8 months ago

I teach at another UNO and face very similar issues, but one of the last things I would like to see as a resolution would be lumping philosophy in with a broader humanities umbrella. We already face pressures in this direction, and here is the result so far: new humanities related projects spring up and require our attention and resources, but we get no credit at the end of the day for contributions. It is essentially the problem you have identified with contributing to Gen Ed and other service programs, except writ large across your entire program and major. There will be no sense that faculty lines belong to any particular subject or other, which sounds friendly until it ends up meeting the erosion of entire subject areas. Many philosophy departments already face the challenge that core areas of expertise are taught by other programs that have better resources and ability to recruit students. Being considered a generic humanities area will further exacerbate that problem, at a time when students already have minimal encouragement to take humanities courses to satisfy requirements, much less philosophy courses. Another trend worth considering in this context is that more high school students now emerge with significant humanities credit hours already completed in AP and dual enrollment courses, so they may never need to set a foot in a college humanities classroom, Even before they have a chance to determine what a philosophy course might be all about.Report

Laura Grams
Laura Grams
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
8 months ago

The specific numbers cited here could be the result of some confusion between the total number of majors, the number who graduate per year, and the state standards expected of each degree program in number of graduates per year, on top of this issue about how to count double majors. The numbers also differ from those reported in the UNK campus newspaper earlier this year.

Consider this for a moment: suppose your state expects 10 majors to graduate every year, and it takes most students 6 years to graduate. Most of them won’t add your major until they’ve been there for at least a year or two, the school’s overall retention rate is low, and it won’t count any of your double majors as majors. How many majors do you think your department would need to have, in total, to meet the average annual graduation standard? Please keep in mind that the university’s total enrollment is about 4,400, and the most popular majors are things like business and education. How many philosophy programs across the nation could put up these numbers under these conditions? One last requirement: you have to do all of this with only three faculty members and one adjunct.

The response to this situation from other philosophers in the field should be concern for what our colleagues at UNK are going through, and for the broader environment in which the benefits of of our discipline are increasingly disregarded even as they seem at least as important as they ever have. The same thing that is happening to them could happen to many programs, in an environment where the content is devalued or considered non-specific to philosophy.

I don’t think it’s appropriate to suggest that somehow their program or major isn’t worth saving based on these numbers. Is the implication that kids who live in Central and Western Nebraska (among others) don’t deserve access to philosophy education unless they are equipped to travel even further away during their undergraduate years? Who does deserve access to philosophy, then? Is it terribly expensive or difficult to provide, relative to the other majors, including smaller ones? It would be nice to see more attention paid to this issue across the profession, because we’ve now had a very large number of these stories about small departments closing, and it’s often a familiar story about rural areas or public universities. Larger trends in the role of this discipline within the university are at work here, and it’s probably a good idea to pay attention to those.Report

Kathleen Wallace
8 months ago

Two reports are issued at our university — a single major report (which is really just whatever major is listed first) and a duplicate major report (which counts double majors). The first report was the standard for a long time, partly because NCES and other federal reporting standards ask for one major (so that the students aren’t counted twice). So the duplicate majors is an internal report that came about because (a) there are so many double majors in a wide variety of fields, and (b) there was concerted, sustained effort by faculty to get the admin to do this counting. A student with a double-major is just as much work for a department as a single major, and sometimes more if one has to figure out a schedule for such a student who often has much less flexibility than a single major student. And it also shows what the demand for and interest in a program is, which for some majors like philosophy that are “discovered” by students after they get to college is important. Students who discover philosophy might have sunk costs, so to speak, in another major that they don’t want to just lose. Also they might have an interest in both, esp. if the students feels they complement one another or that there is good synergy between them.

If your university uses EAB software, though, we have found that it is very unreliable in counting majors, period, let alone double-majors. I don’t know if that is peculiar to our university or if that is a more general problem. And it doesn’t have a field for counting minors (each institution has to figure out some custom fix for that if they want to count minors).

I read the article about UNK and thought that Bicak’s comment that there is a true distinction between a double major and a single major somewhat puzzling. Of course, they are distinct majors presumably (unless it’s a double-major that is interdisciplinary with a lot of double-counting of courses, which is typically not the case for philosophy). But what other claim is being made? Is Bicak thinking of a double major as comparable to a minor? As optional? It is the latter presumably since students are typically required to have only one major. Not sure what follows from that, though.Report

tenure track
8 months ago

We count only the first major, but only because the college uses a terrible online system that doesn’t know how to count the second major. So, if we could find a way to tally those who have philosophy as a second major, they would be counted.Report

John M Collins
8 months ago

My university counts both primary and secondary majors. The secondary majors are typically BA-type majors, with the primary a BS. The student gets one degree (BS), but two majors. Because the student is not getting a BA, they don’t have to fulfill the BA foreign language requirement, only the courses in the major.Report

Dale Miller
8 months ago

At my instigation, my department’s rep to the Faculty Senate proposed a resolution that for internal purposes double majors should be credited to both departments regardless of which is listed first. However, the state still only counts first majors. (When we recently had to justify the continued existence of the degree to them the number of double majors was offered as extenuating. To be clear, we were not really in any danger.) My impression is that even internally people are already forgetting and going back to ignoring second majors.Report

Eric Jason Silverman
8 months ago

We had a similar problem at our school, where the registrar only counts ‘first majors’ as a student’s major. We met with our majors one by one and explained the importance of relisting us as their first major if we weren’t already. It is really dumb that we have to do this, but that’s where we are in our academic culture.Report

Laura Grams
Laura Grams
Reply to  Eric Jason Silverman
8 months ago

Sometimes this happens when the software being used makes it easier to accomplish this way – i.e. it would require additional and trickier steps to bring in second-major data. So the way the computer program was set up is substituted for sensible reasons related to the actual purpose of counting majors. I used to find such things wryly amusing and now it is becoming far more grimly Kafkaesque.Report

Last edited 8 months ago by Laura Grams