Information for Prospective Students
Overview of Economics
Economics studies human behavior in many settings. At the household level, economics investigates how a household allocates its income across goods, and how a household chooses how much to work, spend, and save. At the market level, economics investigates consumer decisions (what to buy and how much to spend); decisions firms make about their production methods and levels of output; and how these decisions jointly determine market prices, structure, and performance. At the aggregate level, economics investigates the determinants of growth and fluctuations of national income, the determinants of inflation and unemployment, the nature of trade and financial flows between nations, and how all of these are influenced by government monetary and fiscal policy.
At its heart, however, economics is more than a set of questions, but rather is a mode of thought, a set of precise analytical tools that can be used to study a wide variety of social science problems. Students are introduced to these tools in the core methodology courses of Microeconomics, Macroeconomics, and Econometrics. With these tools in hand, students are then able to study a wide variety of topics including labor-market outcomes, the role of the banking sector, the economics of developing countries, international trade, the role of the public sector and of the political process, economic history, and the study of health and education. In addition, students have the option for advanced methodological study in dynamic optimization, game theory, and econometrics.
A Career in Economics is Much More Than You Think
Much more than finance, banking, business and government, a degree in economics is useful to all individuals and can lead to many interesting career choices. These four diverse individuals offer their insights on how a background in economics can be a tool for solving very human problems.
Economics vs. Business
The field of Economics is often confused with the field of Business --- and although they are related in many ways, they are different areas of study. At Cornell, students in the College of Arts & Sciences can major in Economics. A Business major called Applied Economics and Management (AEM) is offered through the Dyson School in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the SC Johnson College of Business.
Consistent with the description above, the Economics major focuses on developing a set of analytical tools that can be applied to a broad range of problems. As such, an Economics major opens doors to many different careers, with a broad curriculum not explicitly directed to providing skills specific to any one career. In contrast, the Business/AEM major tends to focus on more business-specific skills --- accounting, marketing, finance, management, and human resources and organizational behavior. If you are interested in a career in business, Economics and Business/AEM are both excellent majors (a significant share of Economics majors indeed go into business careers, especially in finance and consulting). There is no clear sense in which one is better than the other, and we typically recommend that students choose the major that better fits their own personal intellectual interests. It should also be noted that the Economics major is housed in the Arts College and the Business/AEM major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the SC Johnson School of Business, so college specific requirements to graduate will differ, and these should also be considered in finding the right program for you.
For Arts & Sciences students who are interested in both economics and business, you in fact have the option to complete an Economics major while simultaneously completing the Business minor. For more information on the latter, see the Business minor webpage.
Many Economics majors also complete additional majors in other subjects. There are some majors that naturally complement (and perhaps even overlap with) an Economics major --- e.g., majors in Math, Computer Science, Statistics, Psychology, and Government. However, it is quite common for students to complete a second major that is completely unrelated to Economics.
If you are considering pursuing multiple majors, please note that in some instances a single course can count toward multiple majors. For instance, ECON 4020 could count toward both an Economics major and a Math major.
Course Instructors & Class Sizes
For all Economics classes, the primary instructor will be a Cornell faculty member or a visiting faculty member (i.e., a professor from another institution who is visiting for a semester or more). In addition, many Economics classes also employ teaching assistants (TAs), who might conduct discussion sections and/or grade homework and exams.
Introductory Economics courses tend to be rather large, with lectures that average 400-450 students, and discussion sections that average 25-30 students.
Core methodology classes (Micro, Macro, Statistics, and Econometrics) have lectures that average 90-150 students and discussion sections that average 25-40 students.
Advanced economics electives vary in size, with many having 30-60 students, some having 60-90 students, and a few running well over 100 students.
Some electives are capped at 25 students to allow our majors to experience smaller classes.
Is Econ the Right Major for Me?
If you are a high school senior considering Cornell, or a prospective transfer from another college or university, take a look at the pages concerning our Economics major, course offerings, and opportunities for research to get an idea of what our undergraduate program can offer you.
To provide a sense of what our majors do immediately after commencement, we conducted a survey in late April 2022.
Out of 180 December 2021, May 2022, and August 2022 graduates, 165 responded to the survey (91.7% of the graduating class). Of these respondents, 84% said they were employed or obtaining further schooling. Here is the breakdown by the type of employment and type of further schooling:
- 27% in Finance
- 24.1% in Consulting
- 12.8% in Another Business Field
- 11.3% in Banking
- 8.5% Attending Graduate School
- 8.5% stated "Other"
- 5.4% in Tech
- 3.5% in Government or Military
- 2.8% in Technology
- 1.5% Attending Law School
Of the students attending graduate school, some of the institutions they will attend include:
- Columbia University
- Cornell University
- Harvard Law School
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Northeastern University
Of the students who are employed, some of the companies and organizations they will be working for include:
- Analysis Group
- Arrowstreet Capital
- BNP Paribas
- Boston Consulting Group
- The Brattle Group
- Capital One
- Charles River Associates
- Cornerstone Research
- Deutsche Bank
- Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago
- Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas
- Fidelity Investments
- Foundation Risk Partners
- Fractal Analytics
- FTI Consulting
- Goldman Sachs
- Imperial Capital
- Intrepid Investment Bankers
- J.P. Morgan
- Liberty Mutual
- M&T Bank
- National Grid
- Nomura Investment Banking
- Related Urban Development Group
- Royal Bank of Canada
- S&P Global Ratings
- Segal Company
- Seurat Group
- Shrewsbury River Capital
- Solomon Partners
- Sports Info Solutions
- Stella Oak Financial
- United States Marine Corps
- Windrose Consulting Group
- ZS Associates
Learning Objectives for the Economics Major
The purpose of the Economics major is to develop a systematic and coherent understanding of the academic field of economics. The field has three core components: microeconomics, macroeconomics, and econometrics. Microeconomics studies consumer and producer decisions and the workings of markets for specific goods and services. Macroeconomics studies the aggregate economy, dealing with topics like unemployment, growth, and business cycles. Econometrics is the application of statistical analysis to economic data. The field also has numerous sub-fields that focus on specific areas of the economy. Examples include public finance that focuses on the role of the government in the economy and health economics that focuses on the provision and consumption of health care.
The Economics major begins with introductory courses in microeconomics and macroeconomics which aim to acquaint students with the basic concepts in each area. For example, learning objectives for the Introductory Microeconomics course include the ability to construct, interpret and use the basic demand and supply model to analyze various economic scenarios, and being able to define, calculate, interpret and apply elasticity measures.
The major then offers intermediate courses in microeconomics and macroeconomics and a two course sequence in statistics and econometrics. The latter is offered in two varieties: less and more mathematical. These courses aim to acquaint students with more advanced concepts in each area. For example, learning objectives for the Intermediate Microeconomic Theory course include understanding the concepts of Pareto and sum-of-surplus efficiency, being able to determine whether a preference relation is complete, transitive, monotonic and convex, and being able to determine whether a production function exhibits increasing, decreasing or constant returns to scale.
Majors are required to take six elective courses. The most common type of elective introduces students to a sub-field of economics dealing with a specific area of the economy. The learning objectives for these courses are to familiarize students with basic institutional knowledge of the specific area under study and the key economic questions in the area. In addition, to understand how to apply tools and concepts from microeconomics, macroeconomics and econometrics to analyze these key questions. The other main type of elective offers advanced training in microeconomics, macroeconomics or econometrics. The aim of such electives is to expose students to more frontier developments in core economics.
At this time, the Undergraduate Honors Program in Economics is not being offered for the 2023-24 academic year.
A final part of the major is the honors program. This is a two-semester course in which students write a thesis on a topic of their choosing. This course, which is optional, offers interested students the opportunity to undertake original economic research. In the first semester, the instructor provides guidance on the research process, discussing how to identify a research question, find data to address it, develop an economic model and search the literature for related research. In the second semester, students share their progress and brainstorm on how to overcome the problems they encounter. Students are responsible for finding a faculty advisor who is familiar with their topic and can provide specialized feedback on their papers. The learning objective of the honors program is to teach students how to conduct research in economics.