The Opportunity Cost of Economics Education
By ROBERT H. FRANK
Published: September 1, 2005
SHORTLY after I began teaching, more than 30 years ago, three friends in different cities independently sent me the same New Yorker cartoon depicting a woman introducing a man to a friend at a party. "Mary, I'd like you to meet Marty Thorndecker," she began. "He's an economist, but he's really very nice."
Forum: The Economy
Cartoons are data. That people find them amusing usually tells us something about reality. Curious about what drove responses to the economist cartoon, I began asking about the disappointed looks that appeared on people's faces when they first discovered I was an economist. Invariably they mentioned unpleasant memories of an introductory economics course. "There were all those incomprehensible graphs," was a common refrain.
Needless to say, a course can be valuable even if unpleasant. Unfortunately, however, most students seem to emerge from introductory economics courses without having learned even the most important basic principles. According to one recent study, their ability to answer simple economic questions several months after leaving the course is not measurably different from that of people who never took a principles course. What explains such abysmal performance? One problem is the encyclopedic range typical of introductory courses. As the Nobel laureate George J. Stigler wrote more than 40 years ago, "The brief exposure to each of a vast array of techniques and problems leaves the student no basic economic logic with which to analyze the economic questions he will face as a citizen."
Another problem is that the introductory course is increasingly tailored not for the majority of students for whom it will be their only economics course, but for the negligible fraction who will go on to become professional economists. Such courses
focus on the mathematical models that have become the cornerstone of modern...
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