Has Economics Education Become Too Mathematical?

Has Economics Education Become Too Mathematical?


For economics students often the greatest challenge in their studies is mathematics. An economics degree requires the student to learn statistics, econometrics and advanced mathematics. Many students complain that they want to learn economics and not mathematics. The question is often asked, has economics become too mathematical?

Naturally, people who are weak at mathematics (such as myself) will tend to think it is, while those with strong backgrounds in mathematics will tend to disagree. Regardless of who is right, past a certain point economics requires a high level mathematical ability, and many students struggle and fall behind. This is demonstrated by the difficulty many economic majors have in progressing to a PhD in the North American system.

There seems to be a failure by universities to appreciate that unlike fields such as engineering and science, many students who develop an interest in economics do not come with a background in advanced mathematics. It is not adequate to have one mathematics course in a bachelor’s program and expect students to keep pace. Universities should be structuring their courses so those students with a background in advanced mathematics can fast track, while allowing others to learn as they go by doing several maths courses that complement the progress of their degree.

There have been some excellent texts targeted at this kind of student. For example Alpha Chiang’s ‘Fundamentals of Mathematical Economics’ and G.C Archibald and Richard G Lipsey’s ‘A Mathematical Treatment of Economics’. Another excellent resource is Mathematics for Economics: enhancing Teaching and Learning website and its sister site Statistical Resources for Social Sciences, which includes videos on how mathematics is applied to economics. In the area of statistics and econometrics there are many excellent introductory texts that focus on active learning through playing with data such as, Humberto Barreto and Frank M Howland’s Introductory Econometrics.

Unfortunately, most universities continue to teach economics through traditional texts focusing on memorising equations and proofs.  These resources need to be utilised in a way that build up the mathematical ability of students, allowing them to successfully move on to more advanced economic models and benefit from the rigor mathematics can provide.

Has economics education become too mathematical? I would argue, no. I would however argue, that universities are failing their students by not providing them the opportunity develop mathematical ability while earning their degree. If universities are serious about producing graduates with increased human capital, they need to embrace educational methods that genuinely develop strong mathematical and statistical skills in their students.

Photo Credit: Mathematical Association of America