Since slump, economics majors increase

When John Soriano took AP economics during his senior year of high school in 2008, a busted economy made for a booming curiosity.

Amid the fallout of the financial crisis, the junior opted to pursue a degree in economics – a move his classmates are increasingly choosing as the department has seen a 100 percent increase in majors since 2007.

“It seemed like the most relevant issue in the world for me,” Soriano said. “You could turn on CNN or any news and see what was happening that day and then talk about it in class.”

Soriano is one of 378 students majoring in economics this year – a 10 percent bump from last year. He says the major has a dose of practicality mixed with versatility.

After the recession of 2008 hit the nation hard, people scrambled to make sense of the crisis, drawing more students to the field, economics department chair Barry Chiswick said.

“When there are problems in the economy, it makes the front page of the newspapers,” Chiswick said. “There’s more interest in learning about what’s going on in the economy. So we’ve done some things that have made taking courses in economics more attractive.”

The department has looked to answer the demand from students for economic knowledge by ramping up rigor, including more mathematics in the curriculum this year and bringing real-world applications to the classroom, like the addition of a health care economics course this summer.

Professors have also looked to highlight the stable job prospects that an economics degree can deliver in areas like consulting, financial analysis and accountancy, Anthony Yezer, an economics professor, said.

“I always tell the students that one reason to study economics is they don’t want to live with their parents,” Yezer said, citing the field’s ability to advance critical thinking and math abilities.

Universities across the country have likewise seen a rise in economics majors. While total undergraduate degrees have jumped by 11 percent since 2007, the number of students majoring in economics has risen 18 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

This financial crisis has piqued students’ interest in the economy more than others because the significance of the housing crisis, Steve Cobb, the director of the Center for Economic Education at the University of North Texas, said.

“I think this all fits together in that when there’s a downturn in the economy, particularly one in this case that had the housing and the banking aspect to it, it just increases the focus on the economics,” Cobb said.

As student interest is growing, the size of the economics department has fallen slightly over the last five years due to a combination of retirements and funding shifts, deputy department head Bryan Boulier said.

After carrying 26 full-time professors this year – three fewer than in 2007 – the department hired five professors to start in the fall for subjects like development economics and international trade. With the new hires, who earned their doctorates at schools like the University of Chicago and the London School of Economics, the department will be back up to pre-recession faculty levels.

The total number of professors in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, which houses the economics department, has risen slightly over the same period. Roy Guenther, Columbian College’s executive associate dean, said requests for faculty searches are part of three- to five-year “strategic projections.”

To fit in more students, Boulier said the department has raised the enrollment cap level in intermediate and advanced classes. The department has also hired more adjuncts, he said.

“We cannot always accommodate student demand, so that students might have to wait until a subsequent semester if they are closed out of a particular course,” Boulier said. “However, we do work pretty hard for seniors to make sure they can get in all the courses that are required to graduate on time.”

The diversity of courses Soriano hopes to squeeze in for graduation, like the economics of crime and law, has also boosted the field’s appeal, he said. He added that amid a turbulent job market, an economics degree seemed most sensible.

“Economics can come down to weighing the costs and benefits of things,” he said. “[It’s about] making rational decisions.”
This post was updated on March 29, 2012 to reflect the following:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that the economics department had seen about a 50 percent increase since 2007. In fact, enrollment has increased by about 100 percent since that year.

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