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Economics: From dismal to sexy in three decades

Economics is the hottest major in the College of Arts and Sciences these days. With upward of 600 students tallied in the department's 2006-07 annual report, economics is now the most popular major in the arts college.

How did Thomas Carlyle's allegedly "dismal science" get to be so ... so sexy?

One answer: It pays to know economics -- especially if you have your sights set on Wall Street, says Uri Possen, chair of the economics department, which has 31 faculty members. But increasingly, a solid grounding in economics is being seen by undergraduates as crucial to their resumes. As a social science, it also serves a global function.

"We understand the world better if we know economics," says Possen, who says he still advocates for a classic liberal arts education. "And students are finding it to be an extremely useful and important thing to understand."

Undergraduates are not only majoring in economics like never before, they also are adding it as a minor or doubling up. The trend is not unique to Cornell, says Possen.

"Universities across the country are seeing an increase in majors, and the economics departments in our peer institutions are considered central to the academic mission of their respective colleges," he said.

Cornell's numbers have been on the rise since the mid-1970s, when there were roughly 150 students majoring in economics. That figure had doubled by the mid-1980s and has since doubled again, according to the department's annual reports. That steady rise is not only in keeping with a national increase in economics majors at colleges and universities -- it parallels the boom in subscriptions to such magazines as The Economist.

So there is excitement -- and challenge. For Possen and members of his relatively small department, the trend means ever more ferocious competition to recruit and retain top-notch economists.

The department got a major boost in October with a campaign gift of $5 million from Cornell trustee Donald C. Opatrny '74 that will bolster teaching and research efforts.

The Opatrny endowment can serve to augment resources in developmental economics and allow the department to award postdoctoral fellowships for research (there are about 60 graduate students in economics). Undergraduates also benefit, and it gives Possen's department the support needed to attract the best and brightest.

Possen is optimistic that the university is committed to strengthening its economics department. Cornell was ranked 17th overall for economics, ranking 10th in development economics and seventh in labor economics in U.S. News and World Report's rankings last spring. Getting into the top 10 will take a lot of support. But Possen said New York University's economics department once ranked behind Cornell and is now in the top five. Columbia also has strengthened its department considerably.

The challenge, of course, is an economic one. For someone with a doctorate in economics, it's a seller's market. They can choose a fairly lucrative career in the private sector or, if they are a hot item, take a teaching post in one of many business schools that tend to offer far higher salaries, Possen says.

Economists also have plenty of choices in academia and that also raises the stakes. At Cornell, there are economists teaching in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the College of Human Ecology, the ILR School and the Johnson School.

For now Possen is hoping that administrative discussions about bolstering the department bear fruit, and that Cornell takes the lead from its undergraduates who have a nose not only for what's in vogue but what's necessary to know in order to survive in a very competitive global economy.


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