February 3, 2006

Econ majors to face stricter stat requirements

The undergraduate economics department has made a key change to its curriculum this fall, raising the statistics requirement for the economics B.A. to a more advanced level.

As of last quarter, Statistical Models and Methods (STAT 23400) replaced Introductory Statistics with Applications (STAT 22000) as the prerequisite for econometrics classes.

Economics faculty said they felt students were not adequately prepared for the math-intensive econometrics courses with the introductory level of statistics provided in STAT 22000.

“We saw that there was too great a jump between the level of the statistics prerequisite and the required econometrics courses,” said Grace Tsiang, director of the undergraduate economics program.

With 10 percent of U of C undergraduates majoring in economics, it is the most popular concentration by far. Biological sciences, the second most popular major, garners only 6.2 percent of College concentrators.

The modified curriculum has made some students curious about underlying motives that may have prompted the change.

“It seems like the popular opinion among students, with which I agree, is that the department seems to be weeding students out from majoring in econ in an effort to downsize,” said Erin Nitti, a second-year in the College majoring in economics.

Tsiang jokingly responded to this idea: “It has only been said in jest that making Sanskrit a prerequisite would effectively shrink the number of economics majors.”

In good economic fashion, Tsiang used past trends to debunk Nitti’s theory. “The last time we modified the math/stat prerequisites for economics in the late 1990s, the number of students choosing economics continued to increase at a rate faster than the College grew overall,” she said. “In both cases the changes were made to introduce topics in more gradual steps rather than large leaps.”

Tsiang added that the prerequisite change “actually increases accessibility of material,” instead of overwhelming students with too much new information at once.

“The challenges of creating a high-quality economics program despite very high enrollment are real, but we keep in mind the interests of the students in making these incremental changes,” Tsiang said.

The change in requirements has also raised concern about the mathematical leanings of the program’s administrators. “It seems like the economics department is more and more making the major extremely quantitative,” Nitti said.

Rather, Tsiang said that the goal of the economics requirements is to give students a strong working knowledge of the subject. “Economists learn from examining quantitative information about resource allocations,” Tsiang said. “Therefore to become good economists, students must be literate, numerate, and able to analyze real world problems.”

Tsiang said that the prerequisite modification is important to creating well trained economists. “The challenge of sorting out random variation of regularities in quantitative information in the real world has always been a good reason for researchers in many fields, not just economics, to have a sound understanding of statistics.”

Third-year economics major Ceyda Savasli has been frustrated by the news of key program changes. “From what I’ve heard other people tell me, they did fine in econometrics with STAT 220,” Savasli said. “I think it’s a terrible change that was not made public enough and most people lucked out by taking STAT 220 last year. I would have, too, if I knew they were changing the requirement.”

Tsiang defended the course change by explaining that American grade school students’ mathematical and statistical training falls behind that of students in many Asian and European countries.

“Given the quality of the University of Chicago students, we’re not constrained to be satisfied with the mediocre and set ever lower standards vis-à-vis the rest of the world,” Tsiang said.

Despite student opinion, Tsiang thinks the prerequisite change is a boon to the program. “To quote the late U of C labor economist Sherwin Rosen, ‘To be highly compensated it helps to be extremely good at what you do. It helps even more to be extremely rare at what you do,’” she said. “If the majority of American youth are talking themselves out of a working knowledge of mathematics and statistics, then so much the better for those who get it.”