Educating Economists
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Educating Economists

The Teagle Discussion on Re-evaluating the Undergraduate Economics Major

Edited by David Colander and KimMarie McGoldrick

The economics major is a central part of a college education. But is that economics major doing what it is meant to do? And if not, how should it be changed? This book raises a set of provocative questions that encourage readers to look at the economics major in a different light than it is typically considered and provides a series of recommendations for change.
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Chapter 16: Crafting the Economics Major as an Exercise in Property Rights

Neil T. Skaggs


Neil T. Skaggs Since other commentators have taken the license to apply economic reasoning to the problem at hand, I will do likewise. One might look at the problem of crafting an economics major as an exercise in property rights. In universities, including my own, and probably in most liberal arts colleges, departmental faculty members have wide latitude in defining the major. Those acquiring a major have limited control over its content. One could make a strong argument that professors within a discipline are best qualified to determine the content of the major, but such an argument overlooks the problem of incentives. I would guess that at least a substantial minority – perhaps a substantial majority – of academic economists would argue that students should engage in more directed writing assignments than they do. Yet these same economists are frequently loath to require substantial writing assignments because of the time consumed in grading them. Time spent grading is time not spent on research. The incentive structure leads all of us – including myself, though I require some writing even in my large principles sections – to tailor assignments so as to minimize grading time. (Like many professors, I am hesitant to have my assistants grade essays, even when I’m quite happy to have them grade problem sets.) Faculty incentives cannot help but affect the nature of the major. The incentive problem strikes again when we look at the research programs pursued by the vast majority of academic economists. It is quite possible that liberal...

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