Should Economics Departments Make Earning Their Major Harder?

Why would a department want to make their major harder to obtain? While it sounds a little backwards, making it harder to earn a degree in economics not only helps the reputation of your school, it helps the reputation of your department. Think about the psychology between reputation and academic rigor: Ivy League schools are extremely hard to get into, but their courses aren’t necessarily harder (if they’re harder at all) than anywhere else. Since most people don’t know the second part, many believe an Ivy League graduate has some sort of mythical power in their field. The ugly truth: Half of the time, it’s just brand loyalty.

Math Requirements

Having been someone who clawed their way through the calculus series, I personally think it’s shameful to only require “business calculus” for economics majors. So why, then, do so many departments do this? I don’t have a sure answer, but my guess would be that the department wants more funding and this may be a way to get that. Whatever the reason, I’ve seen a lot of people who took business calculus and they struggled in economics courses down the road. Nobody should struggle with taking a simple derivative.

Therefore, I believe that if students are supposed to practically know these things, the minimum requirement should be the actual calculus courses. Not “business calculus” or “mathematics for economists.” Part of it has more to do with the fact that someone may decide later that they want to take more advanced economics. Of course, they will have to academically kill themselves with anywhere between five and seven classes rather than just having to take multivariable calculus and linear algebra, which is two to four classes (depending on your academic system).

Course Expectations and Prerequisites

Something I always found irritating was when the instructor felt like they had to dumb down the course a little to accomodate those poor students that decided to take the easier math. When one takes the easy way out in college, I call it “GPA Cosmetics.” What does your diploma say when you get it? It says that you earned a “Bachelor of Science (or Arts, if you’re me) in Economics.” Nowhere does it read that anyone took the easy way out. Because of this, I firmly believe that it’s best to bring up the standards of prerequisite courses.

Certainly, it’s a great idea to have a math refresher course for economics students who may need to learn how to apply the principles they’ve learned to the field. But it doesn’t make sense to offer a course like that where most of your students are taking it to sidestep “real” calculus.

Minor Requirement?

Currently, at the University of Oregon, there is no requirement for a minor in anything if you’re studying economics. However, they do offer suggestions for preparing you for a specific job after graduation. In terms of making graduates more marketable in the labor force, would it be a good idea to require them to minor in something? Sure, this means that people may stay in school longer, but what’s better for a college’s reputation? A lot of students with an inflated GPA or students with better skills that can actually be used?

Recap

I don’t believe that a minor magically makes someone better at what they do unless it’s related and they learn how to apply it. However, we do need to do something about the proper prerequisites not being fulfilled. Even at BYU-Idaho, when I took managerial economics, the class didn’t require anybody to take calculus. Anyone well versed in math who knows what the lagrangian multiplier is would tell you that any class that has you working with that on homework or exams should require, at the very least, calculus I.

A college’s reputation is quickly damaged and slowly repaired over time. Academically speaking, it tends to start with individual departments. The University of Oregon’s business and journalism schools are so popular that they’ve created a system in which you have to be accepted to that particular school within the university. I don’t believe that economics departments should be doing something like that.

I do, however, believe that it would be a good idea to have two separate kinds of economics classes that are often clogged by people who aren’t even majoring or minoring in it. It’s gotten to the point that a room of 90 students may have fewer than 10 percent of the students actually majoring in economics. A good start would be having enough professors and Graduate Teaching Fellows (GTFs) to handle such a courseload.

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3 comments

  1. Business Calculus? Never heard of it… and now I’m off to look it up.

    I enjoyed Calc. I made it to Calc II but because I was an Accounting and BusAdmin double-major at a tiny college, there wasn’t time for more math courses which had the “only offered on spring semesters of odd years” issue.

    Funny: I also have an Economics minor, but I honestly couldn’t tell you what extra class I needed beyond my majors to acquire that minor (and I swear, three of my classes were taught by the same professor and all three were more or less the same – yikes). I was probably only thinking “well if it’s only one extra class, I can easily fit it in and boom, minor”. Meh.

    I agree about improving standards for prerequisites.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Business calculus is essentially a calculus class some schools offer in lieu of requiring “real” calculus offered by a math department. Econ majors sometimes take it as a class called “math for economists.”

      I took up through calculus III, which was rough. But I’m glad I did it. I’ve got a year left and I’m trying to tackle a minor in math while I’m here. I’m in a class where the professor feels like a lot of people aren’t prepared very well, which may be on them. I’m not sure. But I know that there’s an issue if the prerequisite classes haven’t prepared them too well.

      Like

  2. I think in general that the rigor and standards in most majors should be raised. Limit the supply but increase the quality of the students/graduates and the school’s reputations.

    One could suspect that universities admit as many students as “they can” because of the $$$.

    Business calculus at my school was Calculus for Business students which was the easiest calculus available in first year. A lot of business students that I knew of chose this course as it is easy and a GPA booster for greater chances to get into the co-op work program. (Ontario, Canada)

    Liked by 1 person

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