Wednesday, March 04, 2009

This major is just right 

Prof. David Colander writes that at Middlebury College, his school which has no business major, his majors believe the undergraduate economics degree has the right amount of academic rigor.

At Middlebury, the economics department continually gets students who were planning to major in science until they discovered that in a science major, they would be expected to make a deep commitment to future graduate work. (How deep is that commitment? Students told me that one science student at Middlebury was informed that he would not have time to participate in a sport and also be a science major.)

As chair of the economics department, I am frequently asked by my dean to figure out ways to reduce the number of economics majors � the administration simply refuses to keep increasing the number of economics faculty members. I propose that the solution does not lie in changing the economics major, but in making other majors "just right" as well.

To that end, I asked my students why they considered the other social sciences easy. The answer was twofold. First, far fewer courses in those fields are taught quantitatively than is the case in economics, even though much of the relevant research work is highly quantitative. Other social-science curricula could challenge students more by adding some applied-statistics, math, or computer-science courses as standard requirements. The second reason my students considered the other majors too easy was that they believed the grading standards were undemanding. If they are right, those standards could be raised. For example, social-science courses could require students to write substantial papers that are subject to rigorous standards of logic and exposition.

When I asked my students how the natural sciences could become "just right" majors, they suggested that those departments focus less on training future scientists and more on educating future citizens about the exciting developments in science today. That way, science majors would be able to wait to become scientists in graduate school; they could learn about science during their undergraduate years.
We have a college of business, and the economics department is not in it, so our story is quite different. I suspect the rest of the university would like our business school to be smaller. But besides the obvious benefit of teaching economics to their students, a business school contains many of the students who would also be interested in economics. While some of our best students are like Middlebury's, where students flee the natural sciences (or math and statistics) to have something that feels as rigorous but allows more freedom of thought and perhaps a more engaging subject matter, most of our students come from those who find there to be TOO much emphasis on careers in management or finance. There's just lots of things you can do with an economics degree. And no matter if you're at a school like Middlebury, a Harvard, or St. Cloud State, there are good students who want all those options.

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