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March 11, 2009

The Rise Of The Economics Major

This piece was co-authored by Maurice Black

With the global economy enduring its worst downturn in decades, a nervous public anxious to know what might happen next, and economics professors becoming media celebrities in their own right, it's no surprise that more college students are gravitating toward economics classes. The Oberlin College economics department reports that course enrollment is up 25 percent so far this year. Other schools are seeing similar trends, as students flock to lectures on macroeconomics, monetary policy, and behavioral economics. Economics 101 is wait-listed around the country. In a time of budgetary cutbacks and hiring freezes, some economics departments have even taken on extra faculty to cope with the burden.

But explaining economics' surging popularity wholly as a side effect of the global financial crises would be a mistake says David Colander, chair of the economics department at Middlebury College. In his recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, "Economics is the 'Just Right' Liberal-Arts Major," he notes that the discipline's popularity has quietly been on the increase for years. Those who believe that economics has merely become the liberal arts proxy for business school also turn out to be wrong. When questioned about their career plans, only 36 percent of economics majors said they planned to enter the business world.

Instead, Colander proposes that liberal arts students behave a bit like Goldilocks when choosing their majors. They sample courses from across the curriculum, searching for a "just right" blend of intellectual rigor, cutting-edge ideas, core skills, and broader understanding of the world. Increasingly, they are finding that ideal blend in the economics department. Prospective employers are happy to hire economics majors, who can think creatively and innovatively, communicate effectively, and handle quantitative analysis with ease.
In the parlance of game theory, economics would seem to have become a win-win proposition for all.

But if economics has become the "just right" major, and if students are flocking to it in droves, what does that tell us about the rest of the liberal arts curriculum? We find clues in the Teagle Foundation's analysis of how economics majors rate other disciplines in terms of their perceived difficulty. Although they consider math and the natural sciences to be markedly harder than economics, they rate other social sciences and humanities disciplines as being significantly easier. While 84 percent rated physics as difficult, only 3 percent gave sociology the same ranking. Art history, psychology, international studies, English, and political science also fared poorly.

Colander's analysis suggests that economics is profiting at the expense of social science and humanities disciplines whose porridge has become too cold. This sense of declining standards has been documented elsewhere, too. A recent National History Center report criticizes history departments for letting majors take too many disconnected courses, too few advanced courses, and too many courses in modern periods. An American Council of Trustees and Alumni study found that less than a quarter of top schools required English majors to take a course in Shakespeare.

The success of the economics major suggests that bright, ambitious students don't want to shy away from intellectual challenge. Not every student wants to become a math or natural sciences major, of course; but many don't want to spend their college years pursuing majors that are widely perceived as undemanding and unchallenging. It is now time for schools to reclaim intellectual respectability across the liberal arts by focusing anew on undergraduate teaching. Honoring students' drive to learn across the curriculum will benefit everyone. Students need and want more coherent, rigorous training. Employers should not need to spend billions every year on post-college remediation. The academy itself needs to recover its sense of public purpose and its commitment to giving undergraduates the skills and knowledge they need. If it does, more students will find more majors that are "just right."

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Read more from Erin O'Connor and Maurice Black in Shouldn't All Students Learn Economics from MTC in January

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