Econ 101, the introductory college economics course that often takes place in crowded lecture halls filled with half-asleep freshmen, is finally getting a makeover.
At the top of the class is Raj Chetty, a 38-year-old economist who publishes some of the most intriguing articles in the field year after year. He used data to demystify the American Dream, challenge the Ivies as drivers of social mobility, and become an authority on inequality. It went from top college to top college, got a MacArthur “genius” grant, and landed on Forbes’ 40 under 40 list.
Now at Stanford, he’s thinking about how to teach economics to a bunch of newbies in the field, and they love it.
Chetty’s new course, “Using Big Data to Solve Economic and Social Problems,” attracted 200 students during the spring term. It was Stanford’s most popular economics course, with more students than the equivalent of Econ 101 University (145).
According to Chetty, at the end of the term, some students noted that the class had convinced them to major in economics. While Stanford’s economics department has confirmed that eight more students are majoring in economics this year compared to last year, it also noted that a number of factors could contribute to such enrollments, so it is hard to tell if the bump has anything to do with Chetty’s class. Also, since Stanford students don’t have to declare a major until their junior year, we might not see the full effect for a year or two.
And now anyone can take the course – the lecture series is live on The Equality of Opportunity Project.
Supply and demand
The classroom, in many ways, is a globally engaged and socially minded youngster’s dream, with 11 lectures explaining how big data is changing the way we think about upward mobility, education, health care, climate change, migration, criminal justice, and discrimination.
Additionally, the class has proven to be popular among people who are generally not attracted to the economy. According to Chetty, many more women and minorities have taken her course, and more have come during office hours, which can be intimidating for the uninitiated. The department confirmed that almost half of Chetty’s class was made up of women (84). More women have also taken Chetty’s course than the Stanford equivalent of Econ 101 (72). Her impression is that the class has also increased the number of women and majors in minority economics.
The economy is notoriously unwelcoming to women and minorities. Of the 79 Nobel prizes in economics ever awarded, only one went to a woman. Fewer than one in five tenured or tenured economics professors are women, and the gap between the proportion of women out and on track remains high (pdf, p. 8). Women in the field are also penalized for teamwork: a Harvard study found that men were just as likely to get the tenure, whether or not they published co-authored articles; women, on the other hand, became less likely to get a job as they worked with others.
Which give? There is some evidence that economics, as a discipline, is simply not favorable to women. This summer, a senior at Berkeley used cutting-edge techniques to categorize and study participant feedback at EconJobRumors.com, an anonymous site used to discuss hires and openings in the industry. She found that the words that best predict a conversation about a man, no matter how harsh, were usually work-related (“counselor”, “wharton”, “mathematician”, “nobel”, “goals”), but those for women were condescending. , sexual and unrelated to the domain (“hotter”, “beautiful”, “breasts”, “lesbian”, “feminazi”). It revealed, as one economist put it, “a cesspool of misogyny”.
Others blame the level of math in the field. People who are more likely to study math, computer science, or the hard sciences (men) have the bridge for them. This reinforces a culture that socializes women and minorities into believing they are less good at math, and therefore leads some to believe that making the economy more inclusive means making it less technically rigorous.
But that doesn’t seem quite accurate, as STEM fields are more popular among minority undergraduates than economics.
Indeed, Chetty’s class did not hesitate to tackle the technical aspects of the economy (big data, machine learning and econometrics) and had no problem attracting women and students from minorities.
So why has his approach turned out to be so popular?
An experiment at UC Berkeley offered a new doctoral minor for engineers explicitly seeking solutions for low-income communities: half of the engineers in the inaugural class were women. MIT, meanwhile, launched an interdisciplinary lab focused on creating technologies to improve the lives of people living in poverty, and saw a class made up of over 70 percent women.
“If the content of the job itself is made more meaningful to society, women will enroll en masse,” said Lina Nilsson, director of innovation at UC Berkeley and one of 35 innovators under. 35 years of MIT Technology Review.
What if this was also true in economics? Students who grew up in the low-income neighborhoods that Chetty’s class studied were surprised to see their stories reflected in field research. The professor remembers the students showing up during office hours and telling him, “I really see myself in this data, in this class.”
Chetty believes the course was ultimately a success because it covered “things that people thought really touched their lives personally and that mattered in terms of what they read on the news.”
Of course, the course has only been offered once, so we’ll have to wait and see if its popularity continues (and if those who told Chetty they would declare a major in Economics stick with it). But Chetty has hope. He is talking with teachers from other schools to roll out the program more widely.