On the minor degree: Embracing an academic practicality

May 11, 2016 by Hank Lee and Sam Stark

As a liberal arts college, Williams makes taking a diverse set of courses a priority. The primary goal of the education it offers is to develop an analytical skill set. While majors place due emphasis on a specialized branch of knowledge, the goal of the College more broadly is to leave graduates with a robust, intellectual toolkit. Irrespective of their discipline of study, graduates are prepared to tackle global challenges surrounding public policy, the environment, finance and far more. In an effort to support this core function of the College, the chorus of voices advocating for the school’s adoption of minor degrees has recently grown. But, the question of whether minors effectively foster the breadth of thought central to a liberal arts education is far from settled science. In the following analysis, we will demonstrate how minors would provide some modest benefit in the job market (not to be overstated) and support the diversity of a Williams education.

While the value of having minors for the job search process has the easy potential to be exaggerated, minors offer some appreciable value when graduates seek work. This value comes in the form of official certification. Students have the ability, even without minors, to take around five courses in a subject. But, for employers, it is difficult to discern such a specialty without formal certification. While employers with thorough hiring procedures will likely notice such areas of commitment by combing through an applicant’s transcript, a minor can ensure that an applicant’s disciplines of specialty don’t go overlooked. Minors do not change one’s ability to specialize in a subject. Rather, by providing official certification, they make it easier for these academic specialties to be recognized.

This leads naturally to the question of how much weight such specialization even carries as an undergraduate. After all, earlier we described the unique value of a Williams education as the intellectual preparation it offers students to address a wide range of global challenges, most of which fall outside of their majors. Though this previous statement rings true, it is still the case that many jobs require a specific knowledge base. The possession of this knowledge is most easily verified through a formal degree. And while it may be true that a history major, particularly one from the College, can have a great shot at landing a consulting or investment banking job, even their Williams education does not universally qualify them for the many jobs that are less permissive of varying specialties than these. For instance, it is difficult to find employment as a computer programmer when one’s undergraduate career was spent studying, say, foreign languages rather than programming languages.

The reality is, in selecting a major, and to a lesser extent a minor, students open some doors, close others and leave certain doors open which were open from the start. The education here is particularly extraordinary in its ability to prepare students to think critically irrespective of subject matter. But, that does not mean that the importance of having specialized knowledge for certain fields disappears. This is far from a call for students to think vocationally about their education. Students should pursue what interests and motivates them, but with some mild sense of how their interests manifest themselves in the job market.

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.

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. 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. The minor also allows the student to take a considerably more diverse set of courses than they would be able to if they were to pursue a double major. This situation epitomizes the choice students often face when selecting their major. With the appropriate limitations, offering minors at the College would support course diversity by causing more students to choose a major and a minor over a pair of majors. Implementing minors could benefit the spirit of academic diversity so central to a Williams education and provide graduates with a certification that clarifies their skills to employers. What is there to lose?

Hank Lee ’19 is from Minneapolis, Minn. He lives in Williams Hall. Sam Stark ’19 is from Buffalo, N.Y. He also lives in Williams Hall. 

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