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Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. Read more top stories from 2019.
Earning a college degree can be a crucial step toward life success. But some Arizona State University students want more — they are earning three degrees at one time.
Pursuing a triple major takes a lot of hard work and intricate planning, and not many students take on the challenge. There are 39 of them right now.
For three ASU students who are roommates, it was competition that prompted them to take on three degrees, but it’s friendship that is sustaining them on this demanding path. Tristan Gaynor, George Heiler and Kevin Murphy are all pursuing bachelor of science degrees in finance and supply-chain management. Their third majors are computer information systems for Heiler, business data analytics for Murphy and management for Gaynor. Heiler and Murphy also have minors in real estate.
The seniors, who have known each since eighth grade, all went to Veritas Prep in Phoenix and enrolled in the finance major at ASU, where they are in Barrett, The Honors College. When they realized they could add a second major in their sophomore year, they jumped aboard.
They admit to some rivalry.
“There was a little bit of one-upmanship,” Heiler said.
Gaynor agreed. “One hundred percent.”
But living together has helped with the load.
“At least once a semester, you forget a huge assignment but when you’re living with two guys who have the same degree, that happens less often,” Murphy said.
“We would meet together in the living room and figure out our plan for the week and help each other with our homework.”
The number of students who pursue three concurrent degrees — the official university description of a triple major — has been fairly steady at around 40 per year for the past few years. That’s about one-tenth of 1 percent of ASU students. About 1,800 students are enrolled in two degree programs this year.
Students do it for many reasons. Value is one motive.
“It feels like we’re getting our money’s worth because there’s zero additional cost, and we figured we may as well have a pretty full schedule if we can handle it,” Heiler said.
But the value of earning multiple degrees goes beyond cost.
“We are unable to predict what the workplace of the future will look like, and today’s students need to be prepared for an ever-changing professional environment,” said Frederick Corey, vice provost for undergraduate education. “When students pursue multiple majors, minors and certificates, they’re diversifying their competencies and the base of their knowledge.”
Another reason students do it is passion.
Allie Coritz, who graduated from ASU with three degrees in 2011, knew in high school that she wanted to join the Peace Corps.
“I didn’t intend to triple major,” she said. “I entered as a global studies major, which was wonderful, and then my adviser said the Peace Corps loved geography majors, so I added that one in my third semester.”
In her junior year, she added a major in religious studies.
“That was much more intentional,” she said. “I wanted to study the intersection of gender and religion, and it was far easier to do that in religious studies than in gender studies, which was something else I was considering.”
Coritz did go into the Peace Corps, teaching English in Benin, and she’s now in a PhD program in sociology at the University of Southern California.
“I’ve had time to reflect on what it all meant to be a triple major, and they were all related but each gave me a different perspective.”
Jessica Antonio came to ASU to major in business administration and minor in American Indian studies. One of her business classes did a case study of a diamond-mining company that was causing health problems in an indigenous community in Africa. The students had to find the best solution for the company. The scenario struck a chord with Antonio, who is Navajo.
“It conflicted with my morals,” she said. “I would quit the company.”
She decided to make American Indian studies her second major.
“It was all about activism and human rights, the American Indian movement, politics, land and water and grazing rights,” she said. “It fueled my passion.”
She had nearly completed the requirements for her business administration degree when she was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, which again changed her perspective. She decided to add a degree in nutrition.
“I’m glad to learn about the health side of how food can be medicine and how proper nutrition can help people,” she said. “So my goal right now is to be a registered dietitian and work in a clinic in my community.
“I want to help people heal as fast as they can so they’re not in the hospital for long.”
Sometimes serendipity plays a role in triple majors. Murphy had intended to graduate in three years and then spend his fourth year pursing a master’s degree, but that plan was derailed when he was unable to schedule a series of sequential classes. So instead he added the third major.
Jake Rapp graduated from Northern Arizona University with three majors in in 2013. In his fourth year at NAU, he was ready to graduate with degrees in philosophy and anthropology.
“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after college, but I was thinking about grad school or law school and they had just added the Philosophy, Politics and Law degree,” he said. “Since a big chunk of the PPL degree is philosophy credits and some social science, I thought I’d stay an extra year to do that degree in case I went to law school.”
Which he did. He’s now a second-year student at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at ASU.
His third major included courses in economics, decision theory, political science and law.
“That fifth year was my favorite because I was learning a million different things and not just a single subject area,” said Rapp, who was the second student to graduate with the new degree. “It was nice to have all my classes be something I was interested in and not some elective I didn’t want.”
In the end, it wasn’t the degrees that persuaded him to go to law school.
“I took some time off and I was a bailiff at Superior Court, to get a feel of what real lawyer life was life. That was the most useful thing, but the PPL degree had the best courses to get my mind ready for legal problems in general,” he said.
Many students who go for multiple degrees come into ASU with credits earned in high school, whether through Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge exams, or through dual-enrollment classes with the community colleges. Coritz had earned 15 credits before coming to ASU. Other students, including Heiler and Murphy, earned a few credits through the College Level Examination Program.
Still, multiple degrees require a heavy credit load. Murphy, Gaynor and Heiler have had semesters where they’ve taken 24 credits.
“I found the groove,” Heiler said. “A lot of kids get to college and want to binge-watch five TV shows. I still have free time. I make sure I’m getting to class and getting things done. You have to use your time wisely.”
“I found that when I have more to do, my productivity skyrockets,” said Gaynor, who was a Tillman Scholar and a McCord Scholar.
All three of the roommates are in Barrett, The Honors College, have had multiple internships, participated in W. P. Carey School of Business activities and held jobs.
Sometimes students take extra time to finish. Rapp took five years to earn three degrees.
For Antonio, earning three degrees is part of a 14-year journey. She started at ASU in 2005. Several years ago, she was badly injured in a car accident and had to take medical leave for a few years to recover from surgery and do physical therapy. When she returned, she resumed a part-time schedule to complete three degrees on two campuses. She still has mobility problems.
“That’s all my body can handle right now,” she said. “But I’m still passionate about what I’m doing.”
All of the students have something in common: They love the academics.
“I wanted to go to class because it was interesting,” Rapp said. “It was the most exciting part of the day.”
Antonio said: “I’m a big nerd. I love learning.”
Coritz said she has considered whether three majors was enough.
“All three majors helped to shape me as the person and the scholar I am today,” she said.
“My only regret is that I couldn’t do five.”
Here is some advice for taking on three concurrent degree courses from students who have done it:
• Be intentional. “If you have a compelling reason as to how all three majors make sense and complement each other, it’s a really beneficial experience,” Coritz said.
• Don’t expect to take intriguing electives outside of your major. “Because there are so many requirements to balance, you can't explore very much and take that dance or that English class that seems interesting,” Coritz said.
• Plan your courses carefully. “ASU gives you everything you need to make your own schedule perfectly, with the DARS report and major maps,” Heiler said of the Degree Audit Reporting System dashboard. “We try to get into the same classes together, but we check with the advisers to make sure we’re on track.”
• Advocate for yourself. Advisers help, but the students say it’s up to them to make sure it all works. Antonio took a statistics class for her business degree, and when her nutrition major required a different statistics class, she worked with the advisers to prove she knew the material and didn’t need another course. “You really have to make it work for yourself,” she said.
• Get to know professors and classmates. “We had a professor, Chris Neck, who was a huge influence on us,” Gaynor said. “He’s written recommendation letters, gotten us jobs. We helped him write a chapter for his textbook. It makes a huge difference.”
• Don’t overdo it. “We prioritize sleep, even with triple majors,” Murphy said. “None of us has had to pull an all-nighter.”
Top photo: W. P. Carey School of Business seniors (from left) George Heiler, Tristan Gaynor and Kevin Murphy relax at their Tempe home. The three will be graduating in May, each with triple majors. All three will have degrees in supply chain management and finance, with Heiler adding computer information systems, Gaynor adding management and Murphy adding business data analytics. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now