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Two years after a recommendation by the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons, MIT is transitioning from double degrees to the double major program which eliminates the need for 90 additional units for the second degree program in an effort to make the study of two fields less constraining for students.

The double major transition was one of a series of recommendations the task force, a body gathered under former MIT President Charles M. Vest in 2003 to review and evaluate MIT’s undergraduate curriculum, made in October 2006. Traditionally, students wishing to be recognized for proficiency in two fields of study had to accrue all required units for the first degree, from 180 to 198 units, plus an additional 90 units for the second degree. The additional 90 units did not need to be related to the second field.

“Historically, it was harder to [pursue the double degree] because of the extra units — whether or not they had anything to do with the two major fields — and no one really had a clear rationale of why,” said Diana Henderson, Dean for Curriculum and Faculty Support. “Some people would have occasionally taken enough courses in a second major but not have enough hours to get the second degree acknowledged, and that seemed unfortunate.”

The task force and other members of the MIT community realized that the old system favored those students coming in with significant Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, transfer, and advanced standing exam credit, and the new requirements aim to level the playing field. The task force did not want this requirement to restrict students from broadening their education and pursing more than one interest. Furthermore, acquiring two diplomas implied the full completion of two degree programs, which, since the General Institute Requirements were counted in both degrees, was not true for MIT’s double degree program.

While the most significant change for students is the removal of the 90 extra units, there are other changes in requirements from the double degree to the double major. Students wishing to begin a double major program may do so after completing one term at MIT within their first declared major, as opposed to having to complete two terms within the first major for a double degree. The completion of both majors must also be at the same time, while two degrees were permitted to be completed on separate occasions. Students must still have a 4.0 GPA or above to apply for two major programs and may pursue two minors in fields unrelated to either major.

Some points of concern have been raised about the changes. Henderson said that some faculty members were worried that students would “dilute their efforts” in their fields and would extend themselves too far in pursuit of the second major. Student concerns were also voiced that more pressure would be placed on students to pursue the major since requirements are not as onerous. However, other task force recommendations have been more controversial, Henderson said, whereas reaction to the double major shift has been primarily positive. Substantial amounts of student and faculty input were retrieved throughout the task force decision process, and while Henderson said that the double degree program was not one of the most salient concerns of the community, it “was one [change] that was very positive and there was consensus about it.”

Seniors who are currently pursuing the double degree may not switch to a double major. Juniors who have already declared the dual SB may continue their studies or change to the double major option. Sophomores have the choice to declare either the double degree option or the double major option, and freshmen may only pursue the double major.

Other recommendations by the task force are still being discussed in committees and faculty meetings. The Educational Commons Subcommittee of the Committee on the Undergraduate Program is currently refining the GIR and HASS recommendations by the task force, two of the most controversial proposed changes. The proposed GIR model by the task force required students to take mechanics, single-variable calculus, and multivariable calculus but gave them the flexibility to choose from five out of six GIR categories including computation, mathematics, and physical science. This proposal was met with criticism by faculty concerned that students would not have a reliable foundation to begin study of any major.

The task force HASS recommendations included the addition of requiring freshmen to take Freshmen Experience HASS classes, simplification of the HASS categorization, and completion of the distribution requirement by the end of sophomore year. Concerns were voiced about the more constraining setup of the requirements.

The Educational Commons Subcommittee is currently refining and reviewing the proposals of the task force and will present at the October faculty meeting. A restructuring of the HASS-D categorization would be the change most likely to occur soon, with a projected date of 2010.