By Helin Gao
In an effort to combat an ongoing trend of diminishing student interest, the Department of Economics will implement a set of sweeping curricular changes next year.
The reforms, which were based on student recommendations, will include the consolidation of Econ 1A and Econ 1B into one introductory class, the creation of a flexible track system and the fostering of initiatives meant to foster a sense of community among economics majors.
Peter Klenow Ph.D. ’91, director of undergraduate studies for the economics department, attributed the decreasing number of students pursuing economics majors to the impact of the global financial crisis and increases in other majors’ popularity. Over the past five years, the graduating class of economics majors has shrunk from about 150 to 100.
“One possibility is fewer jobs for econ grads in the wake of the global financial crisis,” Klenow wrote in a statement. “Over the same period, public policy rose by about 15 grads. The major that really stands out as having expanded, however, is computer science, which went from around 100 to over 250 grads in 2012.”
Greater freedom and community
The department’s Undergraduate Policy Committee (UPC) first started an exit survey of graduating majors two years ago, in an effort to solicit feedback on ways of redesigning the major. Survey responses focused on encouraging greater flexibility within prerequisite classes in order to allow students to take more field courses.
Allen Xu ’15, an economics major, noted that it currently takes about two years to finish the major’s core classes.
“Before that it’s pretty hard to take elective field courses. Traditionally, the econ department is pretty strict about not breaking prereqs,” Xu said.
Xu described the consolidation of Econ 1A and Econ 1B into one class as indicative of some progress.
“This frees us a little bit, not a whole lot, but I think it’s in the right direction,” Xu said.
Frank Wolak, professor of economics, emphasized the value of the current system of core classes in fostering students’ ability to think like economists.
“I think for the most part students see it as ‘Okay, there is Econ 50 and 51—this is pretty much applied mathematics,’” Wolak said. “Our view is that this is more like the language you need to be able to learn and to discipline yourself in terms of thinking like an economist.”
Under the reformed major, the department will also offer Econ in the News, a one-unit spring quarter class aimed at demonstrating economics’ application in the real world.
“The idea is to try to bring a closer connection between the world at large and the potential careers that student might have,” Wolak said.
As students move beyond introductory courses, they will also be able to pursue different categories of fields courses, based on individual interests, through a track system.
“In the focus groups last year, students spoke often about how econ majors have diverse interests,” Klenow wrote. “They suggested we provide more guidance and customization.”
Following the focus group’s discussions, UPC exit surveys found that most graduating seniors would have preferred the track system.
“As a freshman, I followed the mainstream courses but I didn’t know what they meant and what I would be doing with them,” Xu said. “Now, you can look ahead, saying ‘I want to focus on finance or I want to focus on development and strategy.’”
The new track system groups students into six tracks: policy, international and development, finance, strategy, research and behavioral.
“They are voluntary for now, partly to avoid transition issues,” Klenow wrote. “If our students urge us to make them more formal in the future, we will likely do so.”
Students’ ability to specialize within a track may also lead to overlaps with other majors such as public policy or international relations.
“One of them [the tracks] is policy and that will overlap considerably with the public policy program’s curriculum,” noted Bruce Owen Ph.D. ’70, professor in public policy. “That means students who are interested both the program and public policy will have a harder choice between the two programs.”
According to Sara Bascetta-Bohn, student services officer for the international relations program, the program has yet to make any final decisions regarding to any changes in its major requirements.
The final component of the reform aims to build a stronger community among current economics majors while cultivating connections with graduated alumni.
“Starting next year we plan to have about 10 events a year to bring back alumni to talk about their experiences and insights in business, policy, service and other areas,” Klenow wrote.
As part of the initiative, the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR) will extend invitations for policy events to economics majors.
“Ultimately, I think the changes are great because it gives young students more insight past Econ 1 into what they can study in the econ major,” said Rajiv Suresh ’15, an economics major. “It’s really great to see that the department is responding to students’ suggestions and taking what we think into account.”