Economics, anyone?

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This past Saturday I was tasked with coordinating the economics contingent at my university’s Open Day. This is the annual frenzy where university staff market their programs and disciplines to students who are just about to finish high school.

In a frictionless world of course, I could have stayed home. Those looking to invest in themselves would already know their expected outcomes after undertaking each degree on offer, so it would be pointless to try to convince anyone to study anything other than their first-best program. Students’ expected returns to effort in each program would be readily observable, so students and programs would be matched according to students’ comparative advantages.

What we see instead, on the day, is a deluge of young people breathlessly undecided amongst alternative degrees about which their prior information is either non-existent, very limited, or outright wrong. They are matched on the other side by staff waving glossy brochures and waxing lyrical about the bountiful material returns to studying whichever discipline they happen to represent.

I certainly wouldn’t suggest that all of the verbiage flying around on Open Days is cheap talk, but a casual wander around the tables uncovers eerily similar speeches about the wondrous opportunities for travel, prestige, and earnings that await the graduate. Product differentiation is even thinner on the ground when representatives are barred, via more or less explicit university policy, from portraying competing disciplines in a negative light.

Fairs to court new undergraduate students regularly occur in the US as well, but there the game is played amongst institutions rather than amongst disciplines. At that level, verifying information is easier than it is at the level of the discipline, because universities are regularly ranked by third-party agencies on a host of metrics. By contrast, where can I find an objective and well-founded opinion on whether economics will better prepare me to enter the workforce than, say, human resource management? Apart from the survey-based snapshots of young graduates offered by Graduate Careers Australia, there is little to go on.

Students’ pre-selection of their field of study, before they even enrol, is undoubtedly part of the problem. We would surely have fewer post-matriculation program transfers and outright dropouts if students could sample the goods before they were asked to make their selections.

However, program pre-selection in Australia is not going to be replaced overnight by a liberal-arts system of the sort followed by most American institutions.

One enhancement would be to replace the single-number-based allocation of students to programs with a mechanism that is more informative about the likely comparative advantages of the individual student. This information could include a brief personal essay, reference letters, or a personality test. Someone who is an excellent writer but who has no interest in human behaviour or current affairs, for example, is probably not best off studying economics even if his ATAR is 98.

One problem with this is that many 17-year-olds do not have the foreknowledge of different disciplines required to make such judgments. The burden of matching students to programs would therefore have to be shouldered by Australian institutions themselves, which are not set up at the moment to evaluate student applications in much more than a bean-counting manner.

Another possibility would be for universities to spend more of their marketing effort highlighting those objective signals of worth that are generated by third parties and are available at a discipline level. These signals reflect the value of different disciplines to different parts of society, and hence are essentially market-based. With some care, they also can be decoupled from implications about “overall” relative quality.

Accounting, for example, could emphasize its training of students for the CPA, a professional qualification for which economics has no real analogue. Such a qualification carries the implicit promise of market recognition, and thereby some measure of job security. Other trade disciplines can highlight similar professional certifications. Highlighting professional qualification as a core endpoint illustrates that private material security is the primary aim of the training provided in some disciplines.

By contrast, economics could point not only to the career opportunities it opens up, but to its central ideological aims, including maximizing welfare and improving our understanding of human behaviour. The achievement of these aims is reflected in the kinds of contributions for which it has won Nobel prizes, the disciplinary backgrounds of those who are picked to advise governments, and the positive contributions made to addressing social problems like pollution and the under-provision of public goods.

Similarly, chemistry might point to the ideological aims implicitly rewarded via the external prizes, patents, and so on won by chemists worldwide. Law might highlight the backgrounds of MPs and the fundamental contributions of legal thinking to the generation of new laws that help to grease the wheels of commerce and social life.

A clear statement of the top rung of the ideological ladder, as seen through the eyes of those working in the discipline, is simply a clear message about the ultimate ideals of the discipline. Such statements can help the matching process by encouraging those students who are motivated by the implicit ideals of a given discipline to sort into that discipline.

Why do we not see more of this type of information on display in Open Day brochures? The main reason is that university marketing departments are staffed by people who are explicitly instructed by their bosses to highlight the material aspects of degrees, like job opportunities and starting salary levels, under the presumption that this is what students want to know. While economists would be the first to acknowledge that material rewards are undeniably important, there are also less-observable rewards available from believing in the ideals of one’s profession. This belief can and often is imprinted during the course of study, but this imprinting process is far easier when the initial slate is of the right colour.

More broadly, feeding students mainly information about jobs and salaries implicitly affirms that this is indeed the main information they should want to know, which in turn fuels the unfortunate vision of higher education as merely a means to become financially secure. I don’t think this is what most professionals, including economists, see as the only point of their profession – or even the main point. We should give students more credit, and stand up for what economics stands for when pitching it to the next generation.

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