Bringing the B.A. in Economics ‘back to life’: Recent changes decrease math prerequisites for some students

Despite the increasing role of technology in higher education, more professors are banning the use of laptops in classrooms in an effort to hold students’ attention.
Despite the increasing role of technology in higher education, more professors are banning the use of laptops in classrooms in an effort to hold students’ attention.

Beginning in fall 2022, Duke’s fourth-most popular major will undergo some significant changes. In order to differentiate the Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science economics degrees, the B.A. will soon have fewer required courses and fewer math prerequisites. 

According to a Jan. 25 email from the Academic Advising Center, students pursuing the B.A. degree will no longer need to take Economics 205, Math 112/122 or Math 202/212.

The B.S. “will be virtually unchanged.” The finance concentration will only be available to students pursuing the B.S., and the AAC recommends that students interested in graduate degrees in Economics or Finance should pursue the B.S., as the B.A. will no longer be classified as a STEM major. 

Current students may opt for the new B.A. guidelines or keep pursuing the original B.A. track.

Thomas Nechyba, professor of economics and public policy studies, chaired the committee that brought forth these changes. In summer 2020, the economics department felt that the B.A. and the B.S. were “essentially identical” and began discussing ways to differentiate them, he said.

“The B.A. was just sitting there. No student was taking it because it was identical to the B.S.,” Nechyba said. “But we can bring [the B.A.] back to life in the way that accomplishes something not of lesser quality but of something different—something that gives a path that allows you to engage with the empirical branches of economics or the more policy-focused branches of economics.”

Nechyba said that many economics electives taken later in the major trajectory lacked the mathematics that the heavy math prerequisites taught. He described them as a “hurdle” that was “unintentionally excluding groups of people,” especially students without high school calculus experience, resulting in the Duke economics program attracting primarily math-oriented students. 

Connel Fullenkamp, professor of the practice of economics, echoed this sentiment. 

“The major is currently structured in a way that is pretty math-intensive. And that is turning out to be a barrier for more and more students, so one of the things we’re trying to do is reduce the barriers to entry,” Fullenkamp said. “If somebody comes to Duke with no calculus background at all, then they’re going to have to take five math classes. That’s a ton, so that’s problematic.” 

Another impetus for the changes, according to Nechyba, was to “change the impression of what economics is.” 

Nechyba explained that the University’s economics program has been successful in preparing students for careers in finance, but that this pipeline has created a disconnect between the students taking economics classes and the faculty teaching them. 

“80% of the faculty have no idea about finance. We don't ever think about it. We don't study it. Yes, it's part of economics, but it's a relatively small part of economics compared to everything else that economics is about,” Nechyba said. 

He believes that these changes to the B.A. program will expose students to the many possibilities of an economics degree beyond “getting to Wall Street.” 

Similarly, Fullenkamp explained that the relaxed B.A. requirements should make it more manageable for economics majors to pursue other disciplines as well. 

“One major that there should be a lot of double majors for but there haven't been after we made the change to the more rigorous major was [public policy]” Fullenkamp said, referencing the changes from a decade ago that dictated the economics majors until this recent shift. “We just don't get that many  [public policy and economics] double majors, and that seems like a really natural fit. I think part of the reason for that was that it was just too much math.” 

Despite most students being “quite receptive to it,” there has been “a little pushback among the faculty,” Fullenkamp said. “I wouldn't say they're negative about it, but they were just concerned that we preserve as much rigor in the major as possible.”

For example Professor of Economics Curtis Taylor, who is  currently teaching Economics 205—Intermediate Microeconomics II, explained that he has “mixed feelings about the change.” 

“I believe Econ 205 has been a hallmark of our undergraduate program and has contributed positively and significantly toward promoting the ‘Duke economics brand.’ That said, I understand the reasons for wanting to make obtaining an economics major easier, through reduction of some burdensome math requirements,” Taylor wrote in an email to The Chronicle. 

He appreciates that now students who take the class will be those who want to, rather than have to in order to fulfill their major requirements. Only 7 students out of 82 have dropped Econ 205 this semester, which is “about the same as usual,” Taylor wrote. “I hope the rest stick it out—I have a lot of important things to teach them and enjoy doing it!” 

Sophomore Allison Telesz agrees with the major changes themselves, but feels that being caught in the transition period has caused some difficulties. She was frustrated that the announcement to the major change was released on Jan. 25, which was six days after the drop/add period ended on Jan. 19.

“I was previously pursuing the B.A., but now I might be doing the B.S. just because I'm in math 202 already, and I can't drop it,” Telesz said. “I wish that they had announced it during drop/add because I would have changed my schedule. Now I’m in a math class that I don’t need to be in anymore, and so I would’ve switched to a different econ class that would’ve gotten me farther on track, especially because I’m going abroad next semester where I can’t take any of the core classes.” 

Telesz explained that in addition to Math 202, she took another math class during summer 2021 that is now unnecessary for the B.A.—“so that's just a little disheartening that I could have definitely saved time and money.” 

“I talked to my dean and my advisor about switching out of my math class after the announcement, and they both kind of expressed that they had no idea that this change was happening or coming,” Telesz continued. 

For sophomore Violet Wang, the recent changes to the B.A. are what finally convinced her to take on an economics major.

“I really enjoyed learning about economics, and was interested in pursuing the B.S. degree. However, I had not taken the mathematics prerequisite courses, making it difficult to fit this trajectory with my plans to study abroad and pursue other academic interests,” Wang wrote in an email to The Chronicle. 

“When I learned about the changes to the B.A. focusing on econometrics application and removing some of the math prerequisites, I thought that it seemed like the perfect fit for my interests. In my opinion, the change is very beneficial, and helps expand the major to appeal to more people,” Wang wrote. 

Wang continued, “now, I am declared as a public policy and economics double major with a computer science minor and am excited for the opportunity to pursue each of these areas in an interdisciplinary way”—exactly what Fullenkamp had hoped for. 

Madeleine Berger profile
Madeleine Berger | Editor at Large

Madeleine Berger is a Trinity senior and an editor at large of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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