Will This Major Dethrone Economics at Yale?
Since 2012, Economics has been the most popular major at Yale. In this week’s video, I explain how it got so popular. Understanding its popularity is not just about understanding Yale—it will help all students who are thinking about majoring in economics. So if you’re not subscribed to the Market Power channel, be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss that video when it comes out.
In today’s newsletter, I’m diving into the trends on Yale’s majors to see the rise and (possible?) fall of economics as the most popular major. I’ll place my bets on which major might replace it. Then I’ll include some of my favorite links from this week. And at the end, in the members-only section, I’ll give my thoughts as a Yale graduate on the value of an Ivy League education.
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To warm us up for the discussion on Yale, I thought this week’s trivia could be an enlightening piece about from Tom Buchanan’s alma mater.
Yale has been around a long time. When friends and family would visit, I would always take them to the wall memorializing the graduates who had died in the American Revolution. That’s right, Yale was founded in 1701, 75 years before America declared independence.
Yale was founded to train people for “publick employment,” so it has always had human capital as its purpose. But in what year did Yale first enroll women in four-year degrees at Yale?
Majors at Yale
Every year, Yale’s Office of Institutional Research publishes a list of the most popular majors among graduates. Since 2010, they have included percentages. The top three have stayed consistent since that year, but they’re relative rankings have shifted.
In 2010, the most popular major was Political Science, and the second most popular was History. Economics was third! But in 2012, Economics ascended to first, narrowly beating PoliSci.
It’s interesting to see how much Economics grew over this period. By 2016, it was the indisputable favorite. Since 2016, its popularity has decreased, but the gap between it and the other two majors has grown larger. This is mainly a result of a rapid decline in popularity among Political Science and History majors.
Why did these two majors fall out of favor?
I think the biggest factor is that Political Science and History are popular for students thinking about law school, and during this time there was a law school crisis. The Great Recession was still a pretty big deal, and lots of law graduates had lost their jobs but not their debt. People started questioning whether a law degree was worth it, and as a result, law school applications in 2013 hit a 30-year low.
This shows that students use economics to decide about their majors! They saw that the expected return from a Political Science or History degree was declining, and they moved away. I’m not sure how many of them switched to Economics, but Economics does look like the long-run winner.
But will Economics retain that title?
Over the next few years, I think Economics will stay on top. The gap is just too high to be closed in the near future. But looking at the majors that are rising, I see two that are trying to contend. While History fell to 6% of graduates in 2023, a different major rose to 6%: Computer Science. And that makes sense when you see that the biggest sources of innovation are in software, like ChatGPT.
But I have a hard time seeing Computer Science dominating Yale’s undergraduates. Yale is not MIT. While its science and engineering are certainly great, Yale’s brand has not been built on it. Indeed, the intro computer science class at Yale is taught by Harvard (gasp! It was a legitimate controversy when I was there). I just don’t think Yale attracts enough students who are willing to major in computer science. Nor do I think Yale wants to.
So for the near future, I think Economics will reign as the top major.
Links I Liked
Paul Graham has helped dozens of your favorite startups succeed. He regularly reflects on the advice that helped him and his proteges. This essay is great for ambitious students trying to figure out what to do in life. I’m also a fan of The Age of the Essay. I have my students read that one every semester.
When I wrote about the Supreme Court ruling on Affirmative Action, I argued that one solution to admissions was to just hold a lottery, giving applicants lottery tickets based on their admissions portfolio. Well the other day, Daron Acemoglu, the most cited modern economist, tweeted basically the same idea. I’m convinced he must be a reader. Hey Daron!
What’s the value of the Ivy League (members only)
Since we spent almost the whole newsletter discussing Yale, I thought I’d give my opinion as a Yale graduate on the value of attending Ivy League schools. I’m going to talk about both undergraduate education and the benefit of attending elite graduate schools. And I’ll even include actual research, so my thoughts are totally unfounded.
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