Monday, April 9, 2007

The Dean’s Prize: Bettering the USC Economics Program

In response to the University of Southern California College Dean’s call for the enrichment of student academic life, I pondered upon the possible changes that could be made to enhance the economics program in which I am enrolled. After having examined the structure and courses of instruction of the most prestigious undergraduate economics programs in the nation, I identified the relative strengths and weaknesses of the curriculum offered by the USC. In this week’s entry I wish to share my evaluation of the program as well as suggestions for improvement.

The undergraduate economics curriculum at USC currently focuses on the traditional topics of economic research: microeconomic and macroeconomic theory, money, trade, and finance. While developing analytical skills in the mainstream subdivisions of the field is critical, students face very limited options in selecting elective courses. Aside from the core subjects mentioned above, the department only offers one special topic course every semester and “Economics of Happiness” once a year, and because intermediate theory classes are listed as prerequisites, it is very difficult for non-economics majors to obtain permission for enrollment. In addition, the study of market behavior often involves extensive use of mathematics, which, in economics terms, creates yet another “barrier to entry.”

Students from other academic disciplines at USC are often reluctant to take economics classes because the offered courses do not closely relate to everyday life. Other leading universities seem to have more success in stimulating student interest by having made available courses that make use of economic theory in the analysis of other social problems. For instance, the economics departments at Harvard offers classes such as “Women, Work, and the Family” and “Race in America” while its counterparts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Chicago present “Health Economics” and “Economics of Sports,” respectively. The USC economics department would benefit by learning from the experience of these prominent programs. By introducing a wider array of economics electives to include especially topics that appeal to all students, USC will encourage more students to study economics. Exploring more unconventional individual topics will also help economics majors in choosing a field of specialization.

USC has a well-established tradition of encouraging students to pursue academic “breadth with depth” and honors those who excel in multiple and diverse disciplines. “Since societal problems rarely fall within the domain of a single discipline or school, collaboration that brings together different perspectives and skills may be the best means of addressing such problems,” states the USC 2004 Strategic Plan, “we must create mechanisms that remove structural disincentives to such collective efforts on problems of major significance.” In light of this Renaissance spirit, I would like to propose an interdisciplinary program that combines the study of economics and psychology.

The Role and Mission of USC emphasizes the importance of striving “constantly for excellence in teaching knowledge and skills to our students, while at the same time helping them to acquire wisdom and insight […] understanding of self, and respect and appreciation for others.” For many the most crucial “wisdom and insight” to gain in life are, precisely, happiness and its sources. And in order to understand how to acquire and retain happiness, one must take into consideration analysis from both the economist’s and the psychologist’s point of view. According to economics professor Richard Easterlin (pictured to the right), “the economics model” portrays “overall happiness […] as the outcome of experiences, good and bad, in various life domains” while the psychology or “set point model exemplifies the ‘top down’ view in which global happiness is a personality trait and hedonic adaptation in different life domains overrides the impact of life events.” (Life Cycle Happiness and Its Sources p.5) These arguments represent two extreme theories while empirical data shows that the truth lies in the middle of the spectrum. Personality and life circumstances both play vital roles in explaining a person’s subjective wellbeing. It is just as important to understand the impact of the Big Five personality traits in determining a person’s baseline of wellbeing as it is to know the fundamental properties of indifferences curves. Economics focuses on people’s behavior and psychology on the motives behind those choices made. The two disciplines are not mutually-exclusive; instead they complement each other. The economics department at MIT, which was rated best in the nation in 2005, has already recognized the strong connection between economics and psychology. It currently offers undergraduate students two courses that unify the two fields of study: “Economics and Psychology” and “Psychology for Economists.” USC should take one step further and create an extensive program that focuses on the investigation of subjective wellbeing and includes core classes from both disciplines. By providing an opportunity to examine both internal and external factors that affect happiness, the college will not only endow the students with an enjoyable learning experience but also equip them with wisdom that will enrich all aspects of their lives.

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