Sunday, November 1, 2009

Raising academic standards at Maryland

My former colleagues at Maryland are trying to raise the standards in economics and in the undergraduate experience more generally.

There are some interesting issues here. Having a relatively easy major attracts lots of students and thus allows for lots of faculty hiring. As it is nicer to have more colleagues rather than fewer, this has its attractions. On the other hand, teaching is more enjoyable when the students are both more able and harder working, and both groups sort differentially into more challenging majors. So there are trade-offs to make.

One way to try and have the best of both worlds is to have two tracks. Western Ontario did this with a vengeance. It had a stand-alone honors program that students could get into in their second year based on performance in introductory classes. It featured small classes and the tenure track faculty. The general program, which served the vast majority of students, featured larger (and sometimes just very large) classes and a heavy does of non-tenure track faculty. This latter is not obviously a bad thing as faculty who specialize in teaching general students likely often do a better job of teaching them.

Having two tracks allows a department to do a better job of preparing its top students for graduate school in economics, something that neither Maryland nor Michigan do very well at present. At both schools, a student who figures out that they are interested in economics graduate school relatively early on and then gets advice about what to do in terms of coursework will be fine. A student who figures this out late will have to spend extra semesters at Michigan or get a job and then take math courses in the evening. A separate track basically gets all the best students prepared at some level, so that when they figure out that they are interested in economics graduate school, they have less catching up to do.

Hat tip: Ophira Vishkin

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