An annual topic of conversation in the Ivy League world is the rise of the economics major. As Kevin Roose points out in New York Magazine, economics has been the most popular major at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale for several consecutive years, with between 11 and 15 percent of degrees conferred in that subject at each school. The major is even growing in popularity at the usually unconventional Brown, where the proportion of students graduating with a degree in economics has risen from 4 to 14 percent from 2003 to 2013.

This is one of the many trends that author and notable higher-education critic William Deresiewicz laments in his recently released Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. Deresiewicz sees the rise of the economics major as a symptom of what ails academia: students at elite colleges are no longer incentivized to pursue their passions or cultivate potential interests (particularly in the humanities), but instead believe they must do whatever will land them the most prestigious and highest-paying job upon graduation (such as by majoring in economics).

As the cost of higher-education tuition skyrockets around the country, and as more students become saddled with burgeoning student-loan debt, it is difficult for students not to perform cost-benefit analyses of their educations. According to Deresiewicz, these sorts of external, market forces have transformed the university into little more than a stepping stone for the professions, not an opportunity to find one’s true “self” or passion or calling in life.

Deresiewicz’s bête noire in the book is undoubtedly the Ivy League. (He holds three degrees from Columbia, where his father taught, and spent a 10-year stint teaching at Yale himself.) In this respect, Deresiewicz is not straying far from the norm; popular critiques of higher education – such as William F. Buckley Jr.’s conservative cult classic God and Man at Yale, Nathan Harden’s follow-up Sex and God at Yale, and Ross Douthat’s Privilege – often have the Ivies in their particular crosshairs.

But Deresiewicz is also more than familiar with Claremont McKenna College and its students. He spoke on campus most recently Nov. 17 (his third visit in as many years) to promote the book, for which he even spent a month researching at CMC. While the majority of his criticisms are supported with statistics or anecdotes deriding the Ivy League, it is perhaps not surprising that much of what Deresiewicz has to say can easily be applied to CMC. Actually, if one takes the Ivy references and general focus out of Deresiewicz’s work, Excellent Sheep reads as though it were written specifically with CMC in mind.

Take, for instance, what Deresiewicz writes about the trend in higher education to characterize its central mission as one of creating “leaders”:

What they mean is nothing more than getting to the top. Making partner at a major law firm, or running a department at a leading hospital, or becoming a senator or chief executive or college president. Being in charge, in other words: climbing to the top of whatever greasy pole of whatever hierarchy you decide to attach yourself to.

Harvard and Princeton may say that they are creating the “leaders of tomorrow,” but can their students actually take courses or graduate with a sequence in leadership? While the Ivies may promote the idea of leadership – in Deresiewicz’s view, a false one – CMC is obsessed with it.

Data Source: CMC Registrar

As for the rise in economics majors: while Brown and Yale see 10 to 15 percent of their student bodies enrolling in economics and wonder if that represents an educational crisis, more than 27 percent of CMC graduates last year held either a single, dual, or double major in economics (Figure 1). And including multi-disciplinary majors that incorporate economics, such as Econ-Engineering or Econ-Accounting, nearly 50 percent of graduates in the class of 2014 received a degree that had the word “Economics” on it (Figure 2).

Data Source: CMC Registrar

All this is to say, perhaps CMC is simply ahead of the curve – what Deresiewicz and others are afraid the Ivies and higher education in general are quickly becoming. But comparing CMC to the Ivies or even to other liberal arts colleges is not particularly apt. Deresiewicz put it very succinctly to a student questioner during his Nov. 17 talk: “CMC is a liberal arts school in name only.” Although he probably meant that somewhat condescendingly, there is some truth buried beneath the sneer: CMC is not a typical liberal arts college.

Like many other liberal arts colleges, CMC sees its mission as creating members of society fit to act with the virtues and skills necessary for responsible citizenship and, yes, leadership in a free-market democracy. But, unlike other liberal arts colleges, CMC has sought to fulfill this mission by focusing on the liberal arts that more closely relate to public affairs, such as government, international relations, and economics. CMC has always taught the traditional liberal arts, but it places a special emphasis on those subjects it deems to be more adaptable and “pragmatic” to life beyond the ivory tower. Because of its history as a liberal arts college rooted in public affairs, CMC tends to attract students who are actually interested in those areas of study, who are not necessarily selling-out by taking courses in fields like economics, as Deresiewicz believes is happening around the country.

But just because CMC should not take everything that Deresiewicz says to heart because of the unique niche that it fills in the liberal arts tradition does not mean that his criticisms are completely inapplicable to the school. While economics is and always has been a central aspect of CMC’s curriculum, it is quickly becoming the curriculum – especially, it appears (although correlation does not equal causation), at the expense of governmental studies. While CMC’s dual pillars of economics and government each sat at around 25 percent of all majors in 2004, there is now a nearly 14-point gap between the two (Figure 1). That disparity increases to about a 20-point gap when one includes multi-disciplinary and related majors into the discussion – again, from a relatively equal footing in 2004 (Figure 2).

There are several potential reasons for this apparent shift toward economics and away from government. Two major events that have colored our generational lens to this point are the election of President Barack Obama and the Great Recession. Although one might have anticipated a boom in political interest with the election of a charismatic president like Obama, young people to this point have been dissatisfied with the president and his promises for change. This may have created a greater sense of political disinterestedness in the pool of applicants to CMC in recent years.

“There was a burst of excitement around the election of President Obama,” CMC Government Professor John Pitney said in an interview. “But that’s long since dissipated.”

Couple that political apathy with the largest financial crisis since the Great Depression, which has heightened students’ anxiety about the future – in addition to providing thesis fodder for many an economics major – and a growing disparity between economic and governmental studies at CMC seems like a very natural, short-term phenomenon.

There are also institutional practices at CMC that may be fueling this growing divide – to which Deresiewicz’s criticisms more neatly apply. As Deresiewicz points out, the rising cost of attending college and increasing student loan debt, which undoubtedly motivate more students to think of their education as an investment and select majors that maximize the return on that investment, are obvious factors. But more compelling is the influence of CMC’s Robert Day School, which partially subsidizes the tuition of a select group of students (to the tune of roughly $15,000), who must in turn take courses in economics, finance, and accounting. There is good reason to be suspicious of the influence of RDS, which was founded in 2007, right about when a major uptick in economics majors and a major downturn in governmental studies began (Figures 1 and 2).

“If you look at graduates, the number of government majors is definitely down; one cause is RDS,” Pitney said. “It’s a basic rule of thumb that when you subsidize something, you get more of it, and if you subsidize economics majors, you get more of them. People who otherwise might have majored in government are majoring in economics.”

Although students do not have to major in economics to become Robert Day Scholars, if one is already required to take a certain number of economics-related courses in order to qualify for the scholarship, then it makes little sense not to add at least a dual or double major in economics to one’s degree. Furthermore, while $15,000 is probably not enough to convince students passionately interested in unrelated subjects, such as the humanities, to major in economics, for those at the margin – debating between, say, economics and government, which are subjects that overlap in many ways – the financial incentive and the resulting prestige associated with becoming a “Robert Day Scholar” may be enough push them over the edge.

“I know people who were motivated to go RDS because it was a lot of money and their families needed the money or they needed the money,” CMC Philosophy Professor Paul Hurley said in an interview. “And if that person is doing RDS instead of being a government major, that’s a problem; they should be choosing the course of study that’s best-suited to their interests, not the course of study that’s best-suited to immediate financial incentives.”

Yet, while some students are undoubtedly incentivized by financial considerations provided by RDS to change or alter their major toward economics, perhaps that is not the primary method by which RDS has transformed CMC’s student body.

“I think, if we get rid of the external world around us, the incentive to major in economics or STEM-related activities, I think that the fact that there are more faculty around to teach economics classes, classes in a great diversity of economics, I think that’s more important than the financial incentive,” CMC Economics Professor and Dean of the Robert Day School Brock Blomberg said in an interview. “I’d say about half of the increase is due to the interest in more practically focused education, and the other half is that we’ve been able to hire more faculty to interest students.”

Although the narrative that the Robert Day School drives students interested in literature and philosophy to become economics and accounting majors against their better judgment is the more compelling argument for the School’s critics, perhaps the more persuasive one is that RDS has given CMC a certain image to prospective applicants. RDS, especially with its B.A./M.A. program in finance, is a very unique and visible institution, one not readily available to students at other colleges. With the creation of the Robert Day School, perhaps CMC has become a Mecca of sorts for students interested in economics; perhaps high school seniors interested in economics are simply taking notice and applying to CMC in greater number. Even more, once students get here, they may be more interested in taking a diverse array of economics courses – such as those related to environmental and political economics, rather than your run-of-the-mill micro- and macroeconomics courses – offered by an impressive array of RDS professors.

The question going forward is how CMC should adapt to change: If one believes that the rise in economics majors poses a problem to CMC’s intellectual diversity and public affairs tradition, then how should the administration react? Is the answer to curb RDS’s influence? How? And by how much? Should the response to uneven growth be to cut everyone down to the same level?

Or should departments feeling squeezed-out by RDS respond by trying to broaden their appeal to students?

Programs such as the Dreier Roundtable, which may have the side-effect of increasing student interest in governmental studies and attracting more applicants who are interested in politics – in addition to its other missions on campus – may go a long way toward evening out the balance at CMC. But $200 million is a difficult threshold to overcome. (Congressman Dreier’s goal is to raise $1 million for the college over several years.) How do we ensure fair competition without punishing success?

Seems like a question for an economist.

Categories: Opinion