In a recent post, Nick Rowe speculated that the President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis made basic macro mistakes in part because he has an undergraduate degree in math.
Yet a person wanting to make a career as an academic economist (or a president of a federal reserve bank) should not choose economics as an undergraduate major. Particularly in Canada.
An undergraduate major requires, say, between 13 and 18 half term courses in economics. An MA? Another 8 to 10 courses. PhD programs vary more, but the University of British Columbia's web site tells students to expect to take another 13 courses.
What's wrong with high standards, requiring students to be have a thorough knowledge of economic concepts and methods?
1. It's repetitive and dull.
In the course of an BA/MA/PhD in economics, how many times would a student interested in industrial organization be taught the basic theory of monopoly? Principles, intermediate micro, industrial organization,.... How many times would she be taught basic two-person non-cooperative game theory? The first theorem of welfare economics?
Now there is a theory of education that suggests such repetition is a good thing. Jerome Bruner's spiral curriculum theory says: 'A curriculum as it develops should revisit ... basic ideas repeatedly, building upon them until the student has grasped the full formal apparatus that goes with them'.
So Ontario's elementary and high schools now use a spiral curriculum, for example.
I relish the thought of WCI commentators, usually skeptical of fancy Ministry of Education pedagogical initiatives, defending a spiral curriculum approach. To me it sounds unbelievably tedious.
2. The opportunity cost of coursework is high
Let me make two claims about coursework. First, in five years time, 90% of everything except for fundamental concepts (for example, the idea of opportunity cost) and skills and techniques used in everyday life (for example, a wider vocabulary) will be forgotten. Second, anything close to the "frontiers of knowledge" has a 50 percent or better chance of being completely obsolete and irrelevant in ten to 20 years time.
Requiring students to take courses they do not need is simply taking away their time and money. If students forget/don't use material, or if it rapidly becomes obsolete, educators are wasting students time requiring them to learn it.
True, general knowledge and 'learning how to think' are valuable. But history or biology or classics or religion are also valuable in building breadth of knowledge.
'Free to choose' works for students, too.
3. Learning other people's models does not teach you to build your own model. Learning other people's ideas does not make you more creative
At some point an economist, whether as a consultant submitting a proposal or a policy analyst writing a briefing note or as an academic writing a research paper has to come up with his or her own research ideas, his own analysis, her own model.
It's tough. Brutally hard. But more course work doesn't necessarily help. My own experience is that the most effective way of learning how to do something is to dig in and do it. Writing this blog, for example, is teaching me to be a better writer, because I know you can and probably will stop reading the second is gets long winded and dull.
My colleagues might disagree with my analysis of the value of course work in general (and their courses in particular). But many would agree that an undergraduate degree in economics is not necessary to succeed in graduate school.
The University of Western Ontario does not require new MA and PhD students to have any background in economics, and indeed actively recruits students with undergraduate degrees in math and physics. Other departments waffle a bit more about their requirements, for example, University of Toronto's MA program requires that applicants have completed, or must be in the final year of an appropriate four-year bachelor's degree program. But I've been involved in graduate admissions for years and am reasonably confident that there isn't a graduate program in the country that would not admit a student with a strong quantitative background and a good grades in a handful of core theory courses (Econ 1000, intermediate micro and macro, advanced micro and macro).
UWO is pursuing a rational strategy. For there are some ugly facts that many people are aware of but few mention in polite company.
Economics departments are usually located in faculties of arts and, at an undergraduate level, draw primarily from the BA student pool, as well as B Com drop outs.
But science and math programs require significantly higher high school grades than arts programs. For example, at Queen's a potential BSc student requires a "competitive average" of 84%+ in university-level grade 12 English, Advanced Functions, Calculus and Vectors, two of: Biology, Chemistry or Physics, plus one other grade 12 courses. A potential BA student requires a "competitive average" of 80%+ in university level grade 12 English plus their best 5 other courses.
If high school grades, especially grades in math, are a good signal of ability in economics, BSc students will, on average, have higher levels of intrinsic ability in economics than BA students.
Moreover, there is not a super-abundance of job opportunities in the natural sciences. There is a strong market for programs that can translate a degree in math or physics into a good job in government or academia.
So for these two reasons - a desire to attract students with a high level of intrinsic ability, and a desire to access a large potential student pool - it is rational for graduate programs to target people with undergraduate degrees in subjects other than economics.
But where does this leave students who choose economics as an undergraduate major? As graduate programs increasingly recruit people with undergraduate degrees in subjects other than economics, graduate programs will spend more time repeating basic economic concepts. How can a student who has already learned these concepts sustain his or her interest? And when students are evaluated on the basis of their mathematical modeling and problem-solving ability, how can a student with an undergraduate degree in economics compete with a physicist?
I see two solutions.
The first is truth in advertising: honestly advise our most talented undergraduate students to switch to a math major/econ minor. But given the sheer joy that my most talented undergraduates give me, it's hard to take that route - plus a student's aptitude for graduate level economics may not be readily apparent until their undergraduate choices are largely determined.
The second is to accept design separate graduate programs for economics majors, ones that skip the unnecessary repetition of undergraduate economics. But I'm having trouble imagining what that program would look like, or who would take it.
This is getting personal for me right now because I have university-age children. I have tried to convince them (and their friends, and my first cousin once removed, and hundreds of students) to study economics. An undergraduate economics degree is an excellent background for a career in law or policy analysis, and is a sound choice for someone looking for a general arts degree. But neither one of my children is interested in taking a BA. Both are applying for/taking degrees with more restricted enrollment and thus a higher prestige value. As a firm believer that the value of education is in large part the signal it provides of your ability, who am I to argue with their choices?
I'm just hoping one of them will stumble into ECON 1000 with a good prof, fall in love with the subject, and think about it for a graduate degree.