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The Econ Major's Marginal Utility

October 23, 2008

Given the many and conflicting reasons why students choose their majors -- they liked an introductory course, it leads to well-paying jobs, it's something they're interested in, their parents made them do it -- it's understandably difficult to pinpoint how they truly feel about their area of concentration.

A working paper that is making the rounds on the blogosphere tries to break down the question, focusing on what economics majors think about their chosen subject. And, as part of a Teagle Foundation initiative encompassing a number of different fields, the research examines how economics as a major fits into an overall liberal education. It's an area of intense recent interest, especially as economics continues to increase in popularity among undergraduates and as some in the field point out its growing tendency to emphasize technical rigor over broader understanding or moral context.

"That's the direction that the economics profession is going," said David Colander, the Christian A. Johnson Distinguished Professor of Economics at Middlebury College and co-author of the paper. "That is fine as one possibility, but it's pulling economics away from its broader liberal arts foundations."

The report is based on two separate electronic surveys, one randomized and one more directed toward majors at top "research liberal arts" colleges. In total, there were over 1,700 respondents, and in general they like studying economics. Almost 79 percent said they were "highly satisfied" or "satisfied" with the major.

Students' happiness with their major appears to vary by type of institution, with one factor making all the difference: whether or not a college has a competitive business program. That, the authors argue, determines whether students who would rather study business are forced to settle for economics. If a college has a restricted-entry business program, the survey found that economics majors at that institution are on the whole less satisfied because some may have had to choose the concentration as a second choice.

"This data suggests that the presence of an unrestricted-entry business program has a positive impact on the satisfaction levels of economics majors," the authors write. "When such programs exist, the economics major is not forced to balance both the goals of students who would rather be in business programs with the goals of students who would study economics either way; therefore the economics major can more easily suit all of its students’ demands."

Students' Level of Satisfaction With Economics Major, by Availability of Business Program

  Highly Satisfied Satisfied Somewhat Satisfied Unsatisfied
Unrestricted-entry
Business Program
42.9% 40.1% 14.8% 2.2%
No Business Program 36.1% 52.1% 11.2% 0.6%
Restricted-entry
Business Program
22.3% 50.3% 22.8% 4.6%

Source: “What Economics Students Think of the Economics Major”

Perhaps not surprisingly, over a third of economics majors, 37.3 percent, find it difficult. The majority, 54.1 percent, said the major was at a "medium" level of difficulty. But even that differed by institution type: "Students generally considered the majors more difficult at liberal arts schools than at state schools. The difference is most pronounced in economics, considered hard by 25.4% of state school students compared to 40.2% of students at liberal arts schools. At research liberal arts school, the major was considered even harder; 44.2% of students considered the economics major hard."

Viewed next to econ majors' perceptions of other majors, it's clear that they find themselves near the top in terms of difficulty, with only mathematics, physics and chemistry rated as harder. "This suggests to us that the economics major has found a balance in terms of analytic difficulty and general understanding, which is about right for an undergraduate liberal education," the report concludes.

What about what students say they actually learn? Of those who responded, 88.5 percent said "the economic way of thinking," followed by 75.5 who said they learned "how an economy works," 70.2 who thought they only learned "a set of somewhat connected models" and 56.8 percent who said they'd picked up math and statistics. Students could choose multiple responses, with "economic literature" receiving the lowest rate, 38 percent.

When applied to specific goals of a liberal education, however, the results are more varied. Colander pointed out, for example, that although 61.3 percent of respondents said the major was "highly successful" at teaching critical thinking skills, only 21.4 percent said the same about moral reasoning skills.

The study also looked at some differences in perceptions of the economics major by gender: "While preparing for work and ability to communicate are considered important to both sexes, men tend to favor a stronger focus on critical thinking while women favor a stronger focus on living in a global society, breadth of interests and living with diversity."

 

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