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Students stack up majors

Having honed the habit of achievement in the race to get into college, students are increasingly pursuing double, triple and even quadruple majors when they get there, amassing credentials they hope will show their diligence and, perhaps, give them an edge getting into graduate school or landing a job in a difficult market.

Katherine Lochbrunner graduated from Boston University in the spring with a quadruple major _ in Hispanic language and literature, art history, Latin and classical civilization.

"I just couldn't narrow it down to one field, " said Lochbrunner, who teaches Latin at St. Peter's Preparatory School in Jersey City, N.J. "I thought I'd do Spanish, but then I discovered how much I liked art history. And I thought four majors would be good at the point when I was looking for a job."

At Georgetown University, 23 percent of the 2002 graduates had double majors, compared with 14 percent of the class of 1996. At Washington University in St. Louis, 42 percent of last year's arts and science graduates had double majors, compared with 28 percent of the 1997 graduates.

Nearly a quarter of the students in the University of Wisconsin at Madison's graduating class have double majors. But that no longer counts for too much: About 160 students are getting triple majors or more, and even quintuple majors are not unheard of.

For the growing number of students who spent their high school years pursuing Advanced Placement credits, high test scores and prestigious extracurricular activities, the multiple major seems to be the next big thing. The faltering economy, with its dim job prospects for new graduates, plays a role, too.

Administrators at some schools worry that meeting all the departmental requirements stops multiple majors from sampling a broad liberal arts education and taking time to explore new passions. Some college officials doubt that double majors confer any benefit in graduate school admissions or the job market. Some advise students to use extra credits to graduate early and get a master's degree, rather than taking five years to complete three or four undergraduate majors, as many want to do.

While students are showing growing interest in multiple majors, there is still considerable debate in academia about whether that is good. A few colleges are resisting the trend to multiple majors, seeking, instead, to help undergraduates experience the broadest possible liberal arts education.