Econ for frat boys

Tyler Cowen points to a paper [pdf] about what economics majors think of their studies. The most interesting conclusion is that having an unrestricted business program increases satisfaction in the econ department:

A much higher percentage of students were very satisfied with the economics major at schools with unrestricted-entry business programs as compared with schools with a restricted-entry business program. This is logical because many students at restricted-entry business program schools may have taken the economics major as an alternative to the business program as an alternative to the business program they could not get into, and therefore would not be as satisfied because it is not the track they would have chosen ideally…

This data suggests that the presence of an unrestricted-entry business program has a positive impact on the satisfaction levels of economics majors. When such programs exist, the economics major is not forced to balance both the goals of students who would rather be in business programs with the goals of students who would study economics either way; therefore the economics major can more easily suit all of its students’ demands.

This tracks my experience at Vanderbilt, which doesn’t offer an undergraduate business major. The economics major is the largest in the College of Arts and Science and that’s not because Vandy students happen to be particularly curious about economics. It’s because they want to make money in business or law after college and studying econ seems like the thing to do until then. As a result the classes are large and dumbed-down, exercises in mathematical problem solving disconnected from real world application or a tradition of inquiry. (One of my philosophy professors once asked a Vanderbilt economics professor for advice about how to teach the Coase Theorem; his response was that he shouldn’t be trying to teach it to undergrads anyway!)

A few years ago Vandy introduced a minor in managerial studies. According to an article in The Torch, it’s become immensely popular: 350 students were bumped from classes in one semester last year. There’s clearly demand for an undergraduate business program, but the university refuses to offer one on the grounds that it would do harm to the school’s integrity as a liberal arts institution. That may be true, but the cost is an academically weakened economics department. Students who are genuinely interested in economics are done a disservice by having to share their major with so many disinterested peers. The university might be better off shunting business students off into their own interdisciplinary program of some kind.