Published Online: November 24, 2008

Financial Crisis Drives Up Interest in Economics

Stocks are down, down, down. But student interest in economics appears to be trending upward.

The financial crisis has made "the dismal science" more relevant and immediate to many high school and college students, and they are suddenly paying closer attention in class.

"Now we can actually see the examples while they happen, instead of relying on history. It's been the most engaging class ever," said New York University junior George Schwartz, who dropped macroeconomics the first time he took it, but is so fascinated this time that he has decided to major in economics.

Instructors are delighted by the opportunity to use the dramatic events on Wall Street to explain concepts students might otherwise find dry, such as liquidity and Federal Reserve monetary policy.

"It is a great time to be in this business," said Jonathan Peters, a College of Staten Island professor. "It's a tremendous opportunity. It's a teachable moment. It's a chance to explain these topics in a very direct way."

Instead of simply discussing the theory surrounding a recession, Peters can show students a real one, step by step. While usually he has to fight to convince them that regulation is useful, that has become very easy nowadays, he said.

At the High School of Economics & Finance in New York's financial district, computer science teacher Aristedes Lourdas is also finding it easy to engage students.

Last year, his students were so unenthusiastic about analyzing the financial markets that Lourdas assigned his class to chart NBA players' salaries and statistics. But this year, "I haven't had to use the NBA at all," he said. Now they are each following the performance of three stocks of their choosing.

Lourdas said students are more interested because they are realizing that the dealings a few blocks away on Wall Street do affect their lives. The downturn has some worried they may not be able to afford college.

"The inner-city kids were kind of indifferent," Lourdas said. But now "all of a sudden, you see it's clicking. They're getting it. Last year, it was more like feeding them the information."

At Plano West Senior High School in a prosperous Dallas suburb, Advanced Placement economics teacher Sally Meek said her students keep veering off into politics and policy, debating the presidential candidates' plans during the election and grappling with questions of how big a role government should take in trying to turn the economy around.

The Arizona Council on Economic Education is helping teachers design classes based on the crisis. Senior program adviser John Morton said that in one lesson he is designing, students will create a market bubble and watch it pop. In other lessons, students will try to apply lessons from the Great Depression to the current crisis.

Eric Branting was months away from graduating from NYU when Wall Street's troubles hit. Immersed in his first economics course, he decided to major in the subject, delaying his graduation by a year.

"I think it's a great time to be getting into economics," the 21-year-old said. His macroeconomics professor, Branting said, is "throwing out three or four chapters of the textbook and desperately rewriting them and rethinking how he's teaching the class."

"People like me who are getting this education right now are learning a whole different way of looking at things. It's exciting."

But Hong Man Lam, an 18-year-old high school senior in New York who once hoped to become a stock trader, is starting to think that a career as an English teacher looks more appealing.

"This is the exact opposite of what I expected," he said a few blocks from the New York Stock Exchange. "I don't want to be part of this big mess."

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