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.