Monday, March 23, 2009

Why Study Economics?

As an undergraduate at a small liberal arts college (Lewis & Clark), I studied economics.  I am very glad I did, but when I think back about the things my undergraduate education provided me that I find particularly valuable today, it has little to do with the specific economics content and more to do with the well-rounded liberal arts education in general.  First and foremost, the amount of writing I had to throughout my undergraduate career was invaluable.  As I progressed through graduate school at Wisconsin and then Cornell, I found that my comparative advantage in writing was pronounced and helped me succeed.  As a research economist, I have come to appreciate that, now matter how good the underlying research is, a research paper is only as good as the writing.

I also appreciate the exposure I got to many different ways of viewing the world.  L&C at the time had a core curriculum that emphasized critical thinking and I took courses in many different subjects that forced me to first understand how each discipline analyzed the world and then think critically about this particular way of looking at the world.  These writing and critical thinking skills formed the bedrock of my education, without which subsequent investments in my education would have been worth a lot less.

But that doesn't mean I regret being an economics major, in fact the opposite it true.  In addition to being a subject that interested me, Economics taught me to think logically and precisely.  When I started to focus on international development, I appreciated this level of intellectual rigor for a subject where there was an endless supply of 'good ideas' but a dearth of critical analysis.

This is all to say that I think this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by David Colander about the popularity of the economics major at liberal arts colleges has it just right. [HT: Greg Mankiw]  In it Colander makes this statement:
Companies like to hire economics majors from liberal-arts colleges not because the students have been trained in business, but because they have a solid background in the liberal arts. What I hear from businesspeople is that they don't care what a job candidate has majored in. They want students who can think, communicate orally, write, and solve problems, and who are comfortable with quantitative analysis. They do not expect colleges to provide students with specific training in business skills.

I try and tell my OSU students this, but most choose Business anyway as they see it as a more useful major and a lot easier.  It is true that the econ major is hard, at my last job the economics department had the second lowest GPA in its classes (Physics had the lowest), but for me as a student this was part of the point.  I was intimidated by it but I wanted to challenge myself as an undergraduate and I think this too served me very well - it forced me to become a much better student which helped me a lot in graduate school.  Colander's research shows that rigor is a motivation for other students as well.
Consider the results of another question in my survey. We asked economics students to identify majors as hard, moderate, or easy, and we found that 33 percent viewed economics as hard, 3 percent said sociology was hard, 7 percent saw psychology as hard, and 13 percent thought political science was hard. Since other social sciences were the primary alternative majors that most of the economics students considered, that data is compelling evidence that the respondents perceived those other majors as too easy. Students likely reasoned that taking a "too easy" major would signal to potential employers that the student had chosen an easy path through college, thereby hurting their chances of being hired.

In my current job I see students that consistently eschew hard courses and majors for what they deem as more practical and more marketable alternatives.  This is part of what I perceive as a general moving away from the liberal arts based undergraduate education to a more vocational approach at large state universities.  I think we need to do a better job informing the students that this may not be the best long-term strategy and that basic skills in writing and math are incredibly valuable assets that you keep with you your entire life - especially as the economy evolves and the vocation you trained for as an undergraduate may not be there for you in the future.


Unknown said...

I majored in accounting and only minored in economics for two main reasons. First, I could see a clear career path in accounting that I didn't see in economics. Second, econ was so fricking hard - especially the math in econometrics - whereas accounting came rather easily to me. I graduated from Linfield and I do agree with your assessment of a liberal arts education.

Rebecca Davies said...

I agree that a liberal arts education is valuable regardless of your major and, too, lament that some students pick particular academic paths because of their apparent ease. However as a student at a university with a substantial humanities-based core curriculum (everyone takes a year-long literature course and then a year-long philosophy course among other required classes), there have been many times when I wish the material I learned in class was more relevant to life outside of the university bubble. My attempt at reconciliation is to apply my academic learning to extra-curricular engagements outside of the classroom while I am still in school. As an urban studies major, perhaps this is easier for me than for students in some other disciplines. Nonetheless, I wish more liberal arts schools--mine included--encouraged this approach.

Eric Madsen said...

I couldn't agree more with your assessment and appreciation of the value of a quality liberal arts education. There was a time when only the most affluent attended universities in search of an "Education" which they would then apply throughout life. Today we look at our time in college as job training, which is a real shame. 15 years post graduation and I find my ability to reason, write, think creatively, and communicate are my greatest assets. Learning doesn't end at commencement, but just begins.

I'm glad I pursued my BFA and then later married an economist... does that mean I took the easy way out?

Patrick Emerson said...


I married a History/French major to atone for my sins. Life is all about balance...

Patrick Emerson said...


I felt a little like that as an undergrad (and especially when I was looking for a job immediately afterward), but over time I appreciate more and more the focus on basic skills. But that is not to say engagement is not important - one of the assignments I give students in theory classes is something called the 'economic naturalist' paper (coined by Cornell's Bob Frank) which asks students to get out in the real world and try and make the connections with the abstract classroom material. [One of the things I try and do with this blog as a matter of fact]

I think there is a happy medium out there and it is good that you are actively pursuing it.

Dann Cutter said...

I have written three fairly long responses to this, but none really said what I wanted to communicate.

As a successful student at OSU, I started in Physics, looked at Chemistry and Economics, before finally settling on Business Finance. And yes, I sought the tough classes out rather than avoid them.

But it's a self fulfilling prophesy. State universities spend little money on liberal arts (and economics) besides requirements for other colleges. As such, class offerings are sparse, and thus get a bad reputation as every department has a 'iffy' instructor. Thus few students want to participate, and don't drive funding increases.

Until this discrepancy in the treatment of these disciplines is addressed, trying to encourage students is a zero sum game. I mean, personally I sincerely hope to not end up in a career in finance - but as a honors student, my approaches to the Econ department were discouraging, while the College of Business went out of their way to pull me in, as did the College of Science. And in the end, the COB ended my science double degree by giving me a full scholarship to the MBA program if I would get around to graduating (note to self, finish thesis soon).

Thus, build a program, and they will come. I could say a lot more... but best over a good beer.

Patrick Emerson said...


I agree with you completely. We struggle to put out a decent major curriculum (though we are working on making it substantially better) and we have to get better before we can complain too loudly.

President Ray has been consistent in saying that OSU needs to fix the relatively underfunded status of the arts and sciences colleges so he gets it, which is nice, but it is a very hard thing to do when the financial rewards to the institution are not as apparent.

But to give undergrads a good education and justify the tuition they pay, I think more attention needs to be paid to the core education OSU is providing.