Should Economics Be Required in College?

(Editors’ note:  This article by Marilyn Flowers, economist at Ball State University, argues against requiring economics in college. Her colleague, Cecil Bohanon, responds here.)

Periodically, a friend or colleague (usually a non-economist) will opine that voters would make better decisions if they understood basic economic principles and that, accordingly, it would be a good idea to require courses in economics for all college students.  I am an economist and I don’t agree with either of these propositions.

First, why would we believe that an understanding of economics would lead to better policy choices?  In our economic models, we assume that individuals make choices consistent with their own interests. This doesn’t mean that altruism doesn’t play a role sometimes.  Many people contribute time and money to what they perceive to be good causes. But no evidence suggests that altruism is the dominant motive for human behavior. As I often remind my students, the reason Mother Teresa is well known years after her death is that the life she chose to lead was so unusual. Like it or not, self-interest usually trumps any perception of “public interest.”  An Indiana farmer who aced economics in college and understands full well that ethanol subsidies are horribly inefficient will still support a subsidy that puts money in his pocket. 

Sadly, a lot of what government does is take money from some and give it to others. The recipients are usually happy and, even if the givers realize what is happening and protest, the fact that it still happens—a lot—means that the protests don’t succeed. Often the protesters are, themselves, bought off with a program of their own.  This is all very wasteful. I once heard a government subsidy described as a transfusion from the right arm to the left arm through a very leaky tube.  The left arm is, nonetheless, happy with the trickle that gets through, despite a lapful of spilled blood.

It is hard to see how an economics course would lead individuals to abandon self-interest. If it did, the implication would be that economics, as a discipline, is fundamentally misguided.  In addition, given the motivations of higher education administrators, a requirement that all students take an economics course is pretty much a guarantee that no students will get a good economics course. 

Think about it. Every graduate would have to pass a course in economics. Many of today’s students would find that very hard to do given the level of rigor currently present in most economics courses.

There are two possible responses.  One is to let the economics course weed out 20 percent or more of matriculates.  The other is to lower the level of rigor so that more students can pass.  Given that tuition and fees account for ever-increasing proportions of college revenues, the pressure to keep students in college and collect their money as long as possible is irresistible.  The resulting pressure on economics faculty to “dumb down” their courses will also be irresistible. Most students don’t want tough courses, and we in higher education tend to give them what they want.  We already have too many “easy” courses in the curriculum.  A requirement that all students pass an economics course will only add to the problem.

On second thought, the requirement, while socially unproductive, would increase the demand for my services.  Perhaps it is not such a bad idea after all.

(For a response by Cecil Bohanon, professor at Ball State University, see here.)