Chancellor Brit Kirwan
Chancellor Brit Kirwan

The number three has a reputation for being lucky. Some might even call it magical.

But that number takes on new meaning when it refers to college degrees.

Freshman Michael Roberts should know — he’s taking on three majors at this university. He started out the school year as a physics major before deciding to add computer science and mathematics.

“I’m interested in all three subjects and they all work together in different ways,” said Roberts, who’s one of many students at this university to pursue more than one field of study.

While it may be a common pursuit, some universities are beginning to question whether seeking multiple degrees do students more harm than good. The National Commission on Higher Education Attainment, composed of college officials from across the country, released an open letter last month that included a recommendation that schools consider limiting students’ workload to improve their focus and keep them on the fast track to graduation.

Created in 2011, the commission’s goal, as stated in the letter, is to increase graduation rates and work toward “restoring the nation’s higher education preeminence,” according to its website. The open letter to college officials contained several suggestions for how schools both big and small can produce more successful students in greater numbers, but it’s the concept of limiting degrees that has become a topic of national debate.

“This just strikes me as big brother, big government stepping in saying, ‘Well, now that’s a bad thing and you must only major in one subject,’” university President Wallace Loh said. “I thought we lived in a free country.”

The commission cited the example of Tennessee’s technical schools system, which uses block schedules to limit the number of classes available. After introducing the system, graduation rates improved significantly, the letter states. In February 2012, a University of Texas at Austin task force recommended students prove they can handle the extra workload and graduate on time before they can declare more than one major.

“The idea that students would just linger on in college, complete one degree and just hang around while they try another one is a luxury we probably can’t afford as a nation right now,” said University System of Maryland Chancellor Brit Kirwan, who is also a member of the commission.

Still, not every commission member agreed with all the report’s suggestions, Kirwan said, and the recommendation was not meant to hinder students or be taken so literally.

“I think it’s an issue that has some nuance to it, in the sense that I don’t think it can be taken in a totally literal way and say, ‘No student can double major.’ That would be too extreme,” Kirwan said. “Students come to college with many advanced placement credits and then are perfectly capable of graduating with two degrees in a three- or four-year period, and I don’t think anyone finds any issue with that.”

Some students seek a double major for a change of pace from their main track or to boost their resume, said Becky Weir, Career Center student services and academic outreach assistant director. But more isn’t always better, she said.

“Sometimes it’s better to pursue a particular degree, get some experience, and then go to graduate school rather than pursuing two undergraduate degrees,” said Weir, who graduated with two majors herself. “It really varies from person to person and situation to situation.”

At this university, officials said they strive to help students reach their academic goals and graduate on time, and while graduation rates are a priority, telling students they can’t make their own decisions isn’t an option.

“We certainly want to reduce the time to degree. It would be best if they graduated in four years rather than in six years,” Loh said. “But college is an opportunity for students to discover who they are and what their passion is in. And if they have a passion for two fields, this is the only time in their lives that they’re going to have this opportunity.”

Where the problem lies is students falling behind academically and failing to graduate on time, holding back both themselves and the institution, Kirwan said. However, Loh said he was uncomfortable with the idea that “super seniors” could be holding the school and its students back, as most people who finish their degrees later are enrolling in upper-level courses rather than taking up freshman seats.

Roberts said he decided to go for his three majors because he’s not sure what he wants to do yet. As a freshman, he knows he has time. But declaring in computer science, mathematics and physics is helping him make progress while he decides what direction he wants to take.

“I came into Maryland still not knowing exactly what I want to do in the future, but I know it will sit on the intersection of two or maybe three of the majors,” Roberts said. “I think that probably I’ll end up dropping one to a minor, realistically.”

The workload hasn’t increased too much, he added, as the majors are all in within the computer, mathematical and natural sciences college. He’s taking 19 credits this semester, but only as a precautionary measure. He wants to finish his general education requirements while staying ahead on his required classes.

Whether or not the university advises students to take on two majors depends on the person and the circumstances, said Deborah Bryant, assistant dean and director of the letters and sciences college.

“There’s no black and white answer. Each answer is unique, just as each student is unique,” Bryant said. “We want to make sure they’re ready to move and that what they decide they’re going to do is a good fit for their interests, skills and abilities.”

Students have many options when it comes to deciding what academic path to take, Bryant said. From minors to research opportunities to study abroad programs, students can enhance their experience through means other than double majors.

The university does have a policy on adding second majors and degrees. Students who wish to do so must get approval from each department they intend to major in, although Roberts said he didn’t find the process difficult at all.

To get credit for both majors at graduation, students must complete 120 credits with only 18 credits shared between the two majors. If they’re feeling ambitious, students can also go for 150 credits and get two separate bachelor’s degrees.

“Generally, a student does a double degree when they have a very solid reason and rationale for doing it when the two majors are closely aligned,” Bryant said.

However, there is a policy governing the time line of a student’s degree. Former university President Dan Mote started to put the Student Academic Success-Degree Completion Policy in place in 2003 when he saw too many students were failing to complete degrees. In 2004, 5 percent of students were off track or disliked their major, making them less likely to graduate, according to the university’s website.

Students now must submit a four-year plan detailing which courses they plan to take and when, and students who go over 130 credits or 10 semesters without a complete degree must get permission to continue for each subsequent semester.

When Laura Jones, a junior, initially spoke to an adviser about pursuing two degrees, they cautioned about the time commitment.

“I was the one that decided to do it, and I’m glad I did,” said Jones, who is working on dual cell biology and genetics and French degrees as a pre-med student.

Jones said she didn’t initially intend to go after two fields of study, but she appreciates the opportunities it brought her. She’s gotten to study abroad, and while she has to double up on classes, Jones is on track to get both diplomas and an Honors Gemstone citation in four years.

“I keep busy. I like the two degrees and I think they’ll both be useful, so I’m glad I did it,” Jones said.