With economics majors in demand, class sizes swell

The number of economics majors has doubled in five years, ballooning class sizes up to 48 percent for some mid-level courses.

The economics department has been one of the fastest growing departments in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences since 2007, more than doubling the number of majors to 440, according to data provided by the department.

The department has increased average class sizes to make room for more students, 37 to 57 for undergraduates over the last five years.

Economics professor Frederick Joutz said the bigger class sizes have made it harder for him to communicate with students. He said he has started to use Blackboard more frequently and holds more office hours to make sure students are voicing their questions and concerns as often as they would in a smaller class.

“You’re doing more work and hopefully giving the same quality of education to the students. With the larger class sizes, we want to make sure students are doing a good job,” Joutz said.

Joutz added that the department has also seen an increase in graduate enrollments, forcing the department to devote more time to advising.

Twenty-four of the 38 upper level courses had waiting lists this spring, though no students were waitlisted for the larger introductory-level economics courses.

Anthony Yezer, an economics professor, pointed to large class sizes as the central issue facing the department, adding that it has only been able to add a few faculty positions.

“We’re very overwhelmed with students right now,” he said. “We never teach any small classes. So that’s kind of our major problem.”

To try to keep up with demand, the department has added more adjunct professors and top full-time professors to fill vacancies after faculty retired or left GW.

Six new economics professors arrived this year, replacing those who had retired or left the University. Dean Peg Barratt said she added 60 new faculty positions since taking over the Columbian College in 2007.

Barratt said she has prioritized a lower student-faculty ratio when making hiring and budget decisions, looking at long-term trends in number of majors.

She declined to say which departments have gotten the green light to hire the most professors during her tenure.

Professor Bryan Boulier said the department has not pinpointed a permanent solution to keep class sizes down.

“While there has been some improvement, we still have a serious problem in terms of providing enough spaces for students to take economics classes,” Boulier said.

The University’s student-faculty ratio is 14-to-1, higher than several peer schools like New York University. The ratio within the economics department had been far below the University five years ago, but is now about on par. Boulier added that about the same proportion of classes are still taught by full-time professors.

Large Columbian College departments like biology, English and psychology have not grown as rapidly as economics in recent years, keeping the college-wide student-faculty ratio steady. Even other fast-growing departments like math and political communication have fewer majors.

The number of economics majors has climbed following the 2008 financial crisis, when interest in economics peaked.

Joutz said students were also attracted to the department’s focus on math, which has been woven into introductory and intermediate courses more strongly over the last two years.

But junior Josh Star, an economics major, said just getting into economics classes often takes luck and knowing the right people – much like many other students’ course registration frustrations regardless of major.

When registering for econometrics, a course most majors need to take, he had to get creative.

“If I didn’t have a friend hold a spot for me, there would have been no way that I could have gotten it,” Star said.

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