Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.

Husted ’13: Rethinking undergraduate economics

When I tell people I concentrate in applied math-economics, I get a handful of responses depending on the inquirer. “Oh wow, so you’ll definitely have a job,” is one. “Oh jeez, that sounds tough,” is another. Aside from making me uncomfortable, these comments dismay me. They are emblematic of the sentiment that an economics concentration is somehow an “ideal” or aptly rigorous undergraduate degree to strive for.

Within the last 15 years, and especially in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the number of economics majors has increased rapidly across the country. At Brown, the number of concentrators per class was 96 in 2001, and now it is over 200. Just in the last two years, the concentration class size has increased by over 20 percent.

The rise in the number of students choosing economics is likely due to increase in jobs available to economics concentrators upon graduation. One student interviewed by The Herald said he chose economics to “pad his resume” and “appear hirable.” Indeed, many of my peers covet jobs in finance and consulting and think a degree in economics is the best way to reach this goal. There is nothing wrong with this — students should strive to get the most out of their diploma. The real question that baffles me is this: What makes an economics degree employable? Is it even all that rigorous?

Don’t get me wrong. I love the topic and wouldn’t have concentrated in anything else. But it is for this reason that I take the glorification of economics with a large grain of salt. The truth of the matter is that the minimum requirements leave one without the math skills necessary to understand most research work in the field and without the writing practice to explain ideas competently.

To illustrate my point, I share the following anecdote: When I told my advisor I wished to look at graduate programs in econ, he did not suggest that I take as many upper-level economics courses as possible. Instead, he told me to take more math classes: linear algebra, multivariable calculus — for starters — and preferably real analysis. That is actually the reason that I chose applied math-economics when I first came to Brown. I wanted to study economics, so I had to study math.

This idea should make sense. Most economics research requires a great deal of math training. Empirical work is driven by statistical analysis where you attempt to explain human behavior with imperfect data. Many of the theoretical concepts in economics require a great deal of calculus. An undergraduate degree, particularly a bachelor of arts, need not dive into great detail with this math, but some familiarity with multivariable calculus and proof-based analysis seems fundamental.

For the sake of argument, let us suggest the undergraduate economics degree need not be technical. It should introduce students to the lexicon of economics and, like all other liberal arts degrees, routinely force them to argue their points through papers and research. Aside from sparingly few seminars, though, most economics classes require no paper writing. Most economics undergrads could scrape by without writing a single paper.

With no rigorous math training and no writing required, the concentration has become overcrowded. Economics classes are needlessly large. Ironically, the department has had to institute a very anti-“free market” approach to shopping period to control the high demand of its more popular courses.

The smallest classes are those that require the most math background. ECON1820: “Behavioral Economics” started with about 100 students last year, but nearly half dropped as they learned that it wasn’t going to be “easy.” ECON1640: “Econometrics II” had fewer than 10 enrolled students, despite teaching the math concepts that comprise macroeconomic analysis.

I don’t seek to unfairly malign Brown’s economics department. Our university is not alone in its treatment of the economics degree. A comparison with Harvard — an unpleasant but interesting one — reveals a nearly identical set of requirements. Furthermore, Brown’s department has some classes, like those listed above, that require more math. But students can easily avoid those and receive the exact same degree.

I don’t seek to criticize those students who choose to major in economics. Economics is a wonderful field. I highly encourage anyone who has not to explore the department. The real shame is that many students find the need to couple economics with another concentration or seek extra math and writing training outside of the department. Economics students are Brown students after all. They are smart and capable, and they deserve a degree that challenges them a little more analytically and critically.

To this extent, the department has made strides in my time at Brown. It recently increased some of the econometric requirements and made the degree a bit more difficult. But economics classes are still in limbo. Most are too rudimentary in math to be challenging, and few to none require the kind of rigorous, thought-provoking analysis other social sciences require with papers and projects. Brown misses a great opportunity to jump ahead of its peer institutions by not solving this problem.


Lucas Husted ’13 learned to write by reading the Economist. He can be reached at



Powered by SNworks Solutions by The State News
All Content © 2024 The Brown Daily Herald, Inc.