Pilot Program Diversifies Economics Students At Middlebury College

May 3, 2019

Less than a third of undergraduate economics majors and Ph.D. students are women, and less than 1 percent of Ph.D. economists identify as Black, Latino, or Native American. A new pilot program, involving several colleges, to get more women and people of color into the economics pipeline has had some promising results.

Nine liberal arts schools, including Middlebury College, took part in the experiment which was led by Swarthmore College economists Amanda Bayer, Syon Bhanot and Fernando Lozano.

At Middlebury College, economics professor Erin Wolcott collected data, along with her colleagues Ryan Clement and Peter Matthews.

Wolcott said the experiment targeted incoming students that are underrepresented in economics, such as women and racial and ethnic minorities, "even before they set foot on a college campus."

The experiment was simple, Wolcott said: Incoming freshman received an email from the economics department inviting them to take an introductory economics class. The email linked to several resources with information about what people can do with an economics major. Half of the targeted students served as a control group, and did not receive emails.

According to Wolcott, 18% of incoming freshman who received the email enrolled in an economics class during their first semester at Middlebury. Compared with the control group, "that's a 20% increase in the likelihood that an underreprsented student takes an economics class in their first semester," Wolcott said.

Additionally, first-generation college students were 11 percentage points more likely to take an economics class in that first semester if they received an email.

“Some students just don’t have the information about what an economics degree — or even a course in economics — really is,” she said.

Diversity in economics is critical, Wolcott said, because people from different backgrounds care about different things.

“Right now, we have a pretty homogeneous group as research economists. You know, we’re only answering a subset of questions,” said Wolcott. “And we might not be answering all the questions that are relevant to the general public. And so by increasing the diversity in the economics profession, we're going to be asking more questions that are more relevant to society.”