Why it pays to be a double major in college

Double majors give workers a more diverse set of skills, recent research suggests. (Illustration: Keith Lee)
Double majors give workers a more diverse set of skills, recent research suggests. (Illustration: Keith Lee)

Summary

A study finds that people who have two majors have more stable earnings.

Do college students benefit from graduating with a double major?

Yes they do, according to a recent study. It suggests workers who double majored in college have more stable earnings than workers who majored in a single subject, meaning they’re less susceptible to sharp swings in income.

“Graduates with double majors seem to experience much more protection from market shocks," says Drew Hanks, an associate professor at Ohio State University and one of the paper’s co-authors. Market shocks are anything that cause wages to rise or fall more than expected—including mass layoffs, an introduction of new technologies or a shift in labor demand.

Researchers looked at data for 1.4 million college-educated workers in the U.S. between 2009 and 2019, and found that earnings for workers with double majors tended to fluctuate in either direction about half as much as earnings for workers with single majors. The study focused on graduates age 30 or older, showing that the effect of majoring in either one or two subject areas was apparent years after graduation.

The study suggests that double majors give workers a more diverse set of skills, which may help them find more-stable jobs, and that diverse skill set may also continue to help them once they land a job.

“They have a wider funnel, a broader set of opportunities to select from, and this seemed to affect their earnings years later," says Hanks.

The authors also found that graduates who majored in two unconnected disciplines—say, a natural science and a social science, such as biology and sociology—were the most insulated from market shocks. Their earnings fluctuated nearly two-thirds less than those of workers in the same field with single majors in reaction to a market shock.

Graduates who choose to double major in similar disciplines—say two social sciences, like political science and economics—saw their earnings fluctuate about a third less than people in their field with single majors in reaction to a market shock.

Xuechao Qian, a postdoctoral scholar at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and one of the paper’s co-authors, cautions that the paper is not a straight cost-benefit analysis that accounts for the additional time and cost of pursuing a double major. Still, she says, just as a diversified financial portfolio can help investors withstand shocks in the financial market, “that seems to be the case with human capital as well."

Lisa Ward is a writer in Vermont.

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