When it comes to undergraduate majors, there is a full economic recovery in place.
Between 1990 and 1995, economics enrollments dropped every year, and departments saw their share of undergraduate majors fall from more than 2 percent to about 1.4 percent. But data that will be published in this summer's issue of The Journal of Economic Education will document a continuation of a rebound that started in 1996.
According to the data, the number of bachelor's degrees awarded in 2004 was 4.7 percent higher than the previous year. The previous two years' increases were 7.7 percent and 10.5 percent, and while the most recent increase isn't as large, it suggests that the numbers will stabilize at the higher levels and aren't likely to revert any time soon. Departments report that students see the major as rigorous preparation for business or legal graduate education, or to seek employment without a graduate degree.
John J. Siegfried, a professor of economics at Vanderbilt University and secretary-treasurer of the American Economic Association, prepared a study based on 272 colleges of all types. The only sector that showed a decline in the number of bachelor's degrees awarded in economics in 2004 was private, Ph.D.-granting institutions, but that category includes many institutions where economics already has a very large share of undergraduate majors.
At the University of Chicago, for example, 17 percent of graduating seniors in 2004 were economics majors, making that the top major, 5 percentage points ahead of biology, the runner up. Twenty years ago, biology was beating economics, 16 percent to 13 percent. In some recent years, the share of economics majors at Chicago, home to a top department in the field, has been close to 20.
At Columbia University, economics majors have been increasing every year for a decade now, according to Susan Elmes, director of undergraduate studies. Between 18 and 20 percent of Columbia College degrees are now in economics, she said. She added that a higher percentage (25 percent and up) of engineering graduates now also graduate with a degree in economics.
"A large percentage of our students are interested in careers in the financial sector and those careers have become tougher to get," she said.
Some colleges expect significant increases to continue. Clyde A. Haulman, chair of the department at the College of William and Mary, said that he prefers to compare two year periods because there is some fluctuation from year to year that may not reflect any significant trends. His department awarded 187 bachelor's degrees in 2004 and 2005, an increase of just over 11 percent from the total in 2000 and 2001.
Haulman predicted more increases because of the way enrollments are going up in intermediate macroeconomics, a course required for the major. In 2003-4 and 2004-5, 374 students took the course, up more than 24 percent from those who took the course in 1999-2000 and 2000-1.
While the data being published in The Journal of Economic Education show healthy increases for the field, they don't show much progress in female enrollments, which have hovered at around one-third of bachelor's degrees awarded in economics for the past seven years.