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Faculty votes to consider new mathematical economics major

MIT faculty voted to consider a new Mathematical Economics major, designated as 14-2, Wednesday. They will vote to approve the major in April.

The Department of Economics will administer the new major, which will complement its existing course 14 offering. Unlike the current economics major, 14-2 trades off several economics subjects for some in math, requiring students to take several course 18 electives including Real Analysis.

In his presentation to the faculty, Professor David Autor, associate department head of the economics department, stated, “Our rationales for posing this major are: one, offer a streamlined path for students who want to do further study in economics and two, to satisfy substantive interest in mathematics.”

Indeed, a student who is trained only in Course 14 would not have the math background required for a PhD program in economics, many of which — including MIT’s — require advanced courses such as Real Analysis. While a student could concurrently major in economics and mathematics, “14-2 creates a path for these students to study the economics that engages them, get the math training they need, and still have some bandwidth for other pursuits,” Autor wrote in an e-mail to The Tech. “We want students to have a broadening MIT experience, not to get too narrow and specialized while they’re barely out of their teens.​”

There also appears to be demand for 14-2 from undergraduates. In a survey the economics department conducted last spring, 53 percent of minors that responded were “very interested” in an econ-math combined major. Even before the survey, “we had had a number of casual conversations with students who were interested in different flavors of the economics major, and a more mathematical flavor was certainly one of them requested,” Senior Lecturer Sara Ellison PhD ’93, a co-author of the proposal, wrote in an e-mail to The Tech.

The increased flexibility of 14-2 resonates with some students. The major “offers students interested in both math and economics the time to follow their own academic interests and electives, rather than the need to pursue both majors’ requirements at the same time,” said Jiacheng Feng ’16, vice-president of the Undergraduate Economics Association, in an interview with The Tech.

A new major could potentially help increase the number of economics majors, which is thought to be “smaller than it should be,” Autor said during the meeting. The economics department expects three to six 14-2 majors in its first several years. According to the registrar’s 2015-2016 enrollment statistics, there are only 38 undergraduates in course 14. For comparison, there are 360 course 18 and course 18-C majors.

Curriculum Description

Compared to the traditional course 14 major, 14-2 requires fewer economics classes. Course 14 students today must take six electives beyond the statistics and econometrics, and intermediate microeconomics and macroeconomics, sequences. In contrast, 14-2 students can substitute other electives for the microeconomics and macroeconomics sequence. Beyond that, at most two economics electives are needed. The remaining requirements go to math subjects: majors must take a flavor of real analysis, linear algebra or differential equations, a math seminar, and at least one other math elective.

Complementing the 14-2 major is the creation of a new communications intensive class, Mathematical Economic Modelling, tentatively dubbed 14.18. It is thought of as a theoretical counterpart to 14.33, a class that teaches students how to write an empirical economics paper. “The idea is that students will come into the class having had significant exposure to economic theory, game theory, for instance, and then, in the class, develop an idea for their own theory paper and receive the guidance and structure they need to write it,” said Ellison.

Future programs

In addition to the Mathematical Economics major, the economics department expects to propose an interdisciplinary Economics and Computer Science major next year following revisions to the course 6 curriculum. According to the proposal, the 2015 spring survey found that 59 percent of students were “very interested” in an econ-computer science major. Course 6 continues to be the most popular MIT undergraduate major, with about 300-400 students every year.

—Anthony Yu