Under the looming, Death-Star-like shadow of Huntsman Hall, it is hard to forget Penn’s deep-rooted connection to finance, big business, and all things economics. As a PPE major, I am no stranger to the allure of consulting and have been enrolled in a variety of economics courses in my Penn student career. ECON 001 is popular amongst first-year students — there is the Econ Scream after all — but the popularity of this course is rooted in the preprofessional mindset of the institution as a whole. To say that this class is vital to a robust education neglects the difficult nature of it, the varying interests of students, and its uselessness in providing everyday financial literacy.
It is a massive understatement to say that Penn is difficult; taxing students mentally, emotionally, and physically (if you have to trek to David Rittenhouse Laboratory). Mental health concerns among the student body have not waned, especially after the effects of social isolation associated with the pandemic. Many first years, new to Penn’s environment, may struggle with acclimating to the University and the constant pressure to be excellent. As a result, courses like ECON 001 are notoriously popular among first years, who consider them a rite of passage for their academic and professional success. The course, however, is difficult: Penn Course Review ranks it a 2.7 out of 4. In comparison to other first-year-oriented courses like writing seminars which peak at difficulties of about 2 out of 4, ECON 001 is a more difficult undertaking. Encouraging students to take this course because it is supposedly necessary for financial success fails to take into account the resulting stress of completing a difficult course, which could be potentially damaging in an already stressful environment.
But why are students so inclined to take this course in the first place? When I took the course I remember being surprised to see some of my friends in it. They were all Engineering students, so why were they adding more to their already heavy course loads? Anecdotally, I can say that the answers were all the same — because they could make money in business. There was minimal passion for economics in the room but rather a streamlined focus on the enigmatic world of finance and business — neither of which anyone could explain in detail.
Penn’s pipeline to the world of business and economics is evident in the post-graduation plans of undergraduates. Among the Class of 2020 graduates who completed Penn Career Services’ Career Plans Survey, 30% of the employed students were in financial services and 20% in consulting. Operating in the so-called Penn Bubble of finance and consulting serves as a push for students to take economics courses for no reason other than to fit in with the crowd of money-minded individuals. While there are students who may truly be fascinated by the intricacies of economics, that is not always the case. Students should be inclined and encouraged to follow their own interests and passions.
Some argue that every student should take microeconomics and macroeconomics for the purposes of financial literacy. I implore these individuals to ask themselves what they mean by financial literacy because, perhaps, before people begin to tackle the economic implications of NAFTA, they should know how to write a check or how stocks work. None of these are discussed in introductory economics classes, including the application of these concepts to more real-world issues besides, at best, allusions to the economic effects of COVID-19. Perhaps an economics course that contributes to a more well-rounded education and applications of economic principles could provide greater financial literacy in a more low-stakes environment.
Given the difficulty and stress caused by the introductory economics courses at Penn, students should not take them merely to conform to the preprofessional environment at the University. They should also not take them with the expectation of gaining meaningful financial literacy. The courses may explain what marginal utility is, but without real-world applications and examples of these principles, the knowledge is relatively useless in establishing financial literacy. Take it from a PPE major: Do not succumb to the allure of economics, only enroll if you are genuinely passionate about it.
ISABELLA GLASSMAN is a College junior studying philosophy, politics, and economics from Suffern, N.Y. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.