UChicago’s Business Economics Track Facing Supply-and-Demand Crisis

Growing popularity of the business economics specialization has created course availability issues.


The entrance to Saieh Hall, the economics building.

By Peter Maheras

The business economics specialization of the economics major has grown rapidly since launching during the 2018–19 academic year. As the track continues to grow, students have struggled to register for required classes as the economics department attempts to keep up with rising demand.

In an interview with The Maroon, economics department chair Robert Shimer said he expects growth to slow over the next few years but is unsure about what consistent percentage of students would choose the business economics track going forward. About half of all economics majors are currently pursuing the business economics track.

“Frankly, our thinking was that adoption was going to be a lot slower than it’s been,” Shimer said. “We just did not see how strong the demand was going to be for this [specialization].”

The business economics track’s required courses are split between the following categories: core, methods, empirical analysis, perspectives, and electives. Three of the elective courses must be taken at the Booth School of Business. Shimer said the department has struggled to keep up with the demand for business economics courses, especially in the methods and empirical analysis categories.

“The surprise for us has been—because the growth has been so strong—that we have to shift resources into the methods and econometrics classes, and [the department is] still not fully satisfying the demand for those classes,” Shimer said.

Eight of the 10 courses offered during fall quarter that fill the methods requirement without requiring calculus are either full or overenrolled, according to the UChicago Class Search system. For example, both of the Intro to Econometrics sections (which fulfill the empirical analysis requirement) are overenrolled.

In order to meet demand, Shimer said the economics department had been increasing class sizes and the number of sections offered for required courses. Individual instructors decide whether to allow overenrollment in their classes, but they are often limited by the physical size of classrooms.

“What we think we have right now is an unusually large number of students who need to take the methods classes,” Shimer said. “Because we’ve been behind for a few years on offering it, students weren’t able to get into the methods classes in their second year that they wanted to take. So we’ve got second-years, third-years, and fourth-years who are trying to take methods classes.”

Shimer said the registrar recently granted the economics department permission to change pre-registration rules to prioritize economics majors over other students. He hopes this change will alleviate some of the bottlenecks in getting students into required courses.

The department plans to hire additional instructors to increase course offerings and shrink class sizes, but Shimer could not specify an intended number of new hires.

“The problem is we could get some warm bodies off the street to teach classes, but that’s not serving anybody well to do that,” Shimer said. “We want to hire great people, and that’s a time-consuming process.”

The business economics program was originally proposed in early 2018 as a standalone major jointly controlled by the Department of Economics and the Booth School of Business. The proposal generated pushback from some students and faculty. Opponents claimed that a business economics major would be akin to a pre-professional degree and would deviate from the University’s tradition of a liberal arts education.

In a petition dated April 3, 2018, more than 100 faculty members outlined their objections to the proposal. They worried that the major would have lower academic standards compared to other majors and would attract applicants who view education “primarily as a preparation for lucrative careers.”

“Creating a business major would do a disservice to future students who would be lured into a narrow technical track that is likely to be less academically rigorous and intellectually stimulating than existing programs in economics and the other social sciences,” the petition reads.

Shimer said the main difference between the business economics track and the standard economics major is the math requirement. Students in the standard economics track are required to complete a full calculus sequence, but students in the business economics track have no specific math requirement outside of the Core.

“For a lot of students, the math is going to be a barrier for entry,” Shimer said. “We think there are really important, fundamental economic things which are independent of mathematics. If mathematics didn’t exist, the economics would still be there. It’s just a question about using different approaches to get at those economics things.”

Shortly after the petition was published, the proposal for a standalone major was withdrawn. Instead, business economics became a specialization within the existing economics major.

“I think we are teaching something which is useful, and I don’t think that’s a horrible thing,” Shimer said, “but we’re also not teaching courses which are, ‘You need to take this course in order to get a job at a Fortune 500 company or a tech company or something like that.’ That’s not how we envisioned it, and it’s not the way it’s constructed.”