Business, College of


Date of this Version

May 2004


Published in The American Economic Review, Volume 94, Number 2, 1 May 2004 , pp. 259-265. Copyright by the American Economic Association. Used by permission.


In his presidential address to the American Economic Association, George Stigler (1963) offered the provocative hypothesis that students would retain very little knowledge from principles courses in economics five years or more after taking the courses. The few empirical studies that have been published on this topic generally found no or small lasting effects, at least for those who took fewer than four courses (see e.g., G. L. Bach and Phillip Saunders, 1965; Gerald J. Lynch, 1990). That raises even broader questions about the long-term effects of studying economics in college, in terms of individuals’ behavior as consumers, workers, and voters, which we are now beginning to investigate using both survey and transcript data.

We have two major goals in this study. First, we want to learn how students perceive their classroom experience in economics courses years after leaving school, both in absolute terms and compared to other courses they took. We drew samples of economics, business, and other majors, who attended our four universities in 1976, 1986, and 1996, and asked which topics regularly covered in economics courses they now viewed as being most (and least) important. We asked whether they now viewed the economics courses they took as interesting, important, too difficult, or too abstract. We also compared their perceptions of teaching methods and grading rigor in economics courses to those developed in other courses.

Our second major goal represents an empirical test of the common claim that economics is a unique “way of thinking.” If it is, we might reasonably expect people with more training in economics to have different views on policy issues, and to make different decisions as consumers, workers, savers, investors, and voters. We collected survey data on many of these choices, and by matching those responses with transcript data, we plan to investigate whether there are observable behavioral responses associated with being an economics major, or simply taking some minimum number of economics courses, compared to students who took fewer courses or none at all.

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