Economics, Once a Perplexing Subject, Is Enjoying a Bull Run at Universities


NEW YORK -- November 30, 1998 (Page A2)

The dismal science is in vogue again on campus.

After years of trailing history, English and biology as the top undergraduate major, economics is enjoying a surge in popularity with college students, especially at the nation's most elite institutions.

Economics, once considered one of the more difficult subjects for undergraduates to grasp, is the top major at Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford and the Universities of Pennsylvania and Chicago; second at Brown, Yale and the University of California at Berkeley; and third at Cornell and Dartmouth.

Demand for an economics degree at public universities and at second-tier colleges is growing too, but at a slower pace. At most of those colleges, business management is far more popular than economics. So while the number of bachelor's degrees in economics awarded to students at the top schools is rising, the number of economics degrees awarded overall remains below the peak reached in 1990.

At Columbia University in New York, "the popularity of economics has been rising for the last 10 years," said Richard Clarida, chairman of Columbia's economics department. This past fall, 398 students signed up to take introductory economics, making it the biggest class on campus.

Reasons Behind Trend

Why so much interest in a discipline that has been known to induce bouts of nausea in befuddled undergraduates? According to academics, interest in economics as a major has traditionally risen and fallen with the health of the finance industry, the major employer of economics graduates. And with a booming stock market leaving investment bankers, stock pickers and securities analysts among the highest paid professionals in the nation, some college students are hoping to use economics as an entry to Wall Street. Also, because the top colleges don't consider business a suitable discipline for undergraduates, students interested in the subject often turn to economics as a substitute.

But the swelling ranks of economics majors also reflects more subtle trends, including a sharp reduction in the age at which economics is first introduced to students, stronger mathematical skills among college freshmen and heightened interest among all Americans in economic ideas and their impact on everything from wage rates to the price of an airline ticket.

"Increasingly, economic issues are presented to citizens as an important determinant of how their life is going to play out," said Professor Michael K. Salemi, chairman of the economics department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and chairman of the American Economic Association Committee on Economic Education.

Recalling President Clinton's 1992 campaign mantra, "It's the economy stupid," Prof. Salemi noted that practically everything these days, even elections, are driven by economic events.

So much so, that even students "interested in public policy are more likely to study economics than political science" these days, said Merton Peck, deputy chairman of the economics department at Yale University.

An Early Start

In some states, children as young as five years old are being taught economic concepts and ideas, according to the National Council on Economic Education, which provides economic training to 120,000 grade-school teachers each year. By the time these students reach college, the subject is easier to grasp than it was for students of earlier generations.

"The present generation is less intimidated by mathematics and quantitative analysis," said Prof. Peck, adding that at Yale, "well over 80% of entering freshman have had calculus in high school."

Economics also is viewed by more students as a ticket to the nation's top business and law schools. Admissions officers say the students are right. "The best people are more frequently taking economics as their major than they were a decade or so ago," said Richard A. Silverman, executive director of admissions at the Yale School of Management. "It shows they have the intellectual fire in the belly to perform well in an MBA program."

Many law schools feel the same way. "Of all the majors, economics ranks in the top four or five consistently year after year for both applicants and offers made," said Edward Tom, director of admissions at the University of California at Berkeley's law school, Boalt Hall. "Logical reasoning and analytical skills" are critical to legal studies, he said.

And, apparently, help at scoring high on standardized exams, including the Law School Admissions Test. Out of a possible LSAT score of 180, economics majors average about 155, ranking highest in a study of the most common majors for law school applicants in 1992 and 1995 by Michael Nieswiadomy, a professor of economics at the University of North Texas. (Criminology majors, with an average score of 146, finished dead last.) When the study was expanded to include less-common majors, however, economics was edged out by mathematics, physics, philosophy and religion.

Ascent Up the Ivory Tower

For many students, however, economics is just the quickest way to land a good job. David Reinstein, 22 years old, started at George Washington University in a dual program of economics and political science. By the time he graduated in June, he had dropped the politics for economics alone.

"People are impressed because it's difficult," Mr. Reinstein said. "Economics is respected." His resume also impressed CNA Corp., an Arlington, Va., government contractor where Mr. Reinstein landed a job as a research specialist.

To students of past generations, the ascent of economics up the ivory tower may come as something of a shock. Decades ago, left-leaning scholars held the moral high ground, and the study of markets, commerce and currencies was regarded by many as a less noble, less meaningful pursuit than deconstructing paradigms of power such as race, class or gender.

But for the class of 2002, the Cold War is nothing more than a quickly retreating childhood memory; the question of military conflict over ideological differences practically moot. If not liberal capitalism, then what?

"Now that the Cold War is over, economic issues become the central core of policy debates," said Yale's Prof. Peck, a former adviser to the Johnson administration. From his 23 years on the campus in New Haven, Conn., Prof. Peck can recall countless times when competing philosophies sparked clashes in the classroom, but it seems that catalyst has been effectively neutralized.

"Economics, as it is taught at Yale, is not an ideological subject," he said. "We don't talk about whether capitalists are greedy but rather about the benefits of, say, a fixed exchange rate."

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