As the national economy continues to recede, the study of economics at Bowdoin is on the rise.

For the past five years, the economics and government departments have occupied the top two spots for the most popular majors among graduating classes. While economics has consistently ranked been No. 2, the number of economics majors, as well as the percentage of each graduating class majoring in the subject, has substantially increased in the past five years.

Chair of the Economics Department Deborah DeGraff had statistics on the number of economics majors per class, starting with the Class of 2004. She said that between 2004 and 2008, an average of 47 students per class majored in economics. But for the Class of 2009, that number jumped to 63, and in the Class of 2010, 81 students have declared an economics major.

Additionally, the percentage of each graduating class that is majoring in economics has increased. Figures provided by the Office of Institutional Research and DeGraff show that since the Class of 2004, the current junior class has the highest percentage of students that have declared an economics major, at 17.7 percent (Note: the number of students in the Class of 2010 was calculated with figures from the 2007-2008 year because the 2008-2009 figure does not account for the number of students that are studying abroad). Among current seniors, 14.4 percent are majoring in economics, an increase from the 10.1 percent of the Class of 2008 that majored in economics.

The increase has strained professors and class enrollments. Associate Professor of Economics Ta Herrera said, "classes are largely very full, much fuller than they used to be." Economics classes frequently have long waiting lists, and professors often bump up enrollments beyond the cap, he said.

Although the department was awarded one of the 12 additional faculty positions as part of the Bowdoin Campaign, DeGraff said that one new professor would only somewhat help reduce the stress on class sizes. "We're still up against extreme enrollment pressures," she said.

DeGraff and Herrera attributed the increased interest in economics to the new distribution requirements. Under the previous system, economics was listed under mathematics/natural sciences, but for the Class of 2010 and beyond. economics counts for the mathematical, computation, or statistical reasoning (MCSR) requirement, while the natural sciences are separate. In order to satisfy the MCSR requirement, many students have opted to take Economics 101. Herrera estimated that 75 percent of the juniors, sophomores, and first years will have taken Economics 101 by the time they graduate.

DeGraff believes that the high number of junior economics majors reflect this change. The new distribution requirement "brings people in the door at the entry level," she said. "Some of those who wouldn't have thought about majoring in econ realize they're interested and they continue."

But DeGraff's explanation would not apply to the 63 economics majors in the Class of 2009 who fulfilled distribution requirments under the old system. In light of this fact, the Orient attempted to determine why so many students are choosing to major in economics by conducting interviews and e-mailing all junior and senior majors the question: "Why did you decide to major in economics?"

Why economics?

Some students said that they chose to major in economics because of the type of thinking that the field requires.

Sarah Richards '10 wrote in an e-mail that she "really liked how it distilled the real world into manageable scenarios, scenarios we could understand." Crosby Cook '09 wrote, "having been quantitatively successful in high school, economics appealed to me as a practical application of this skill set." Jeff Cutter '09 said that economics, and finance specifically, fit his personality because it is fast-paced, competitive and "almost like a game."

A few students said that economics would allow them to serve the Common Good.

Kayla Baker '09 wrote that she chose the department because "in order to address issues of social justice, DuBois said that Blacks need to understand economics."

Luke Fairbanks '09 said in an interview that he wanted to help people, and that economics complemented his coordinate environmental studies major well. "It gives me perspective on both subjects," he said.

Fairbanks added that "an economics degree is pretty good to have for the job market and I think that's a legitimate reason itself."

Senior economics major Dave Falkof wrote in an e-mail that he thought interest in economics among students was cyclical and reflected the current economic situation. "We are in the midst of a recession, so the cycle is favoring the career oriented majors," he said.

But junior Alex Carpenter wrote that the recession had caused him to lose interest in business, and he decided to drop his economics major.

Still, many students explained their interest in economics in terms of employability.

Stephen Gonzalez '09 wrote that one of the reasons he chose economics was "so I could get a sweet job." Junior Reid Auger wrote, "I basically just wanted to keep my options open and be able to land any job out there with a respectable major."

DeGraff recognized that students major in her department to make themselves attractive to potential employers and prepare for future jobs, especially within the business field. "In general I think there is a fairly high percentage of students who, if Bowdoin offered business management courses, they would take them," she said.

Herrera echoed her sentiment, "there is a subset of the student body that majors in economics because it's the closest thing we have to a business degree."

For Cutter, who will be working as a financial analyst next year, economics was "sort of the only road" towards a career in business. "A lot of people are interested in getting into business and we don't have another route to do so," he said.

The new economics and finance minor

But starting this fall, students looking to study finance will have a concrete way of expressing their interest in the topic to potential employers by declaring a minor in "economics and finance." According to DeGraff, the new minor is "a credentialing issue." Graduating with a minor in economics and finance is "something clear on their resume that signals to potential employers that they have taken particular courses."

From a curricular point of view, DeGraff said the minor is "a cluster of related courses that make for a more cohesive curriculum for students interested in that area." No new courses will be added, but rather the minor will be structured as to require students to take two finance classes. "It's just putting a name on what we do here," she said.

Cutter, who is a co-president of the Bowdoin College Finance Society, agreed that "a finance minor would help" students show interest in the field and clarify their interests, since majoring in economics can be confusing to employers who think that candidates will have studied business. Cutter said that in job interviews he has had to explain that Bowdoin does not offer a business program. "I thought they understood that a liberal arts school doesn't have a business major," he said.

But Cutter is pleased with his decision to attend a liberal arts school, and said that the decision has not placed him at a disadvantage in the job market even though Bowdoin students "don't really have exposure to what other students at business school do." When asked why he chose a school like Bowdoin, he said that he did not know what career he was interested in coming into college, but he added, "business programs are narrow." He described a friend who was enrolled in a business program who "doesn't really have a well-rounded perspective on things."

He added that even if the economics and finance minor had existed while he was at Bowdoin, he still would have majored in economics. "I wouldn't go back and do just a finance minor," he said. He added that economics is a liberal major that is "good for general knowledge."

For students like Cutter, the new minor will be of little help since economics majors cannot also minor in economics and finance. DeGraff wrote in an e-mail that "for majors who choose to complete the requirements for the new minor, Professor DeCoster [who teaches the finance classes] will provide them with appropriate language for the resume and cover letters to indicate such, but it is not a formal recognition."

Concerns about a finance minor

Some students and professors expressed concern with the recent creation of economics and finance minor.

Danny Chaffetz '11, who is majoring in economics, said that "if you say you're an econ major then people assume you're doing it so you can be successful in a purely income-based way." He added that the assumption that economics majors are just interested in business leads "people to doubt your interest in the subject."

Fairbanks agreed with Chaffetz.

"I think that putting in the finance minor could potentially perpetuate what some may consider a problem in the economics student body," he said, referring to the assumptions Chaffetz described. Fairbanks added that a finance minor might draw people who "think it will make them money in the future."

"A lot of people want to major in finance who have no interest in economics, they just want to go work for 'the man.' Putting in the finance minor institutionalizes that feeling," he said.

Only a few students said they were explicitly interested in economics to make money.

Junior economics major Daniel Reagan responded to the Orient's e-mail by quoting the rap group Wu-Tang Clan. He wrote, "Cash Rules Everything Around Me. C.R.E.A.M. Get the money. Dolla dolla bill y'all." Timothy Kelleher '09 wrote, "I know a lot of big name companies offer big time salaries. Economically, having an economics major just made sense."

Although a high salary did not factor into most students' responses, many students were concerned about getting a practical education with skills that would transfer easily to the workplace.

Mitchell Dillon '10 wrote in an e-mail that "economics has a reputation for being the most practical major." Auger wrote, "I took economics because it is applicable in the real world." Junior Thai Ha-Ngoc wrote, "the economics major would give me practical tools and knowledge to use in whatever career I ended up pursing."

Although Herrera argued that "there's a theory of finance" and that economics is a "robust intellectual area," many students who responded to the Orient's e-mail were drawn to economics not because of the theory, but because of its applications and implications for future employment.

Practical education at a liberal arts college

Fairbanks was confident that finance was a liberal arts topic, but worried that students would not view the new minor as such. "As a subject it is liberal arts, but the way people approach it or try to use that credential is inconsistent with liberal arts."

But Fairbanks added that an economics major is no different from any other major; "in a very big way college itself is a means to an end."

Chaffetz echoed his sentiment. "Bowdoin itself is a résumé-builder," he said. However, Chaffetz added, "you want to think that everyone came here because Bowdoin has something academic to offer, not what it can give them after they graduate."

Professors in other departments believe that there is a general trend towards balancing practical with liberal arts education at Bowdoin.

Associate Professor of Sociology Joe Bandy said that although the College has made "concessions to more career-oriented education" over the years, he has no trouble with the finance minor, or with the trend towards practical education. "I prefer to have students have practical applications to the things they learn," he said. He argued that community-based courses and other practical applications of theory do not "diminish intellectual rigor, [they] can actually enhance it."

Associate Professor of Education Chuck Dorn's research focuses on the civic functions of higher education. He has recently written a paper entitled "From 'Learned Professions' to 'Lucrative Professions.'" In it he argues that throughout the 19th century, the purpose of a liberal arts education was to prepare students to serve the common good: "personal advancement fused with civic responsibility to create a social ethos that defined success, at least in part, by an individual's commitment to the public good."

However, Dorn argues that during the 20th century, definitions of success and the purpose of higher education have evolved towards material wealth and reaping personal benefit. Dorn writes in his article, "a social ethos of private advantage, which defines personal success solely in terms of material wealth, has fostered and legitimized undergraduates' conception of higher education as a consumer good through which one prepares for employment in a 'lucrative' rather than a 'learned' profession."

For senior economics major Archie Abrams, Bowdoin should both educate students morally while also preparing them for a career. He wrote in an e-mail that economics provides students with "useful tools and interesting insights about how and why people act (as well as preparing us for careers in business and public policy)." However, he added that the subject alone was not complete by itself. "Economics, by its very nature, does not attempt to seek any truth or goodness behind simple calculations of utility."

Abrams wrote, "What concerns me about the rise of economics at Bowdoin is that will Bowdoin continue to produce graduates that are human beings in the fullest sense, human beings that seek truth and goodness or [can] we only produce 'useful' students, concerned only with simple calculations of utility?"

Bandy has hope that the new finance minor will instill Abrams' sense of "truth and goodness" in its students; "we need people in finance and business who serve the Common Good." Otherwise, there is a risk of "a dichotomy between civil service and business," he said. However, "it remains to be seen whether this finance minor encourages the Common Good or not."