UChicago summer program aims to foster diversity in field of economics

Becker Friedman Institute welcomes students from underrepresented backgrounds to learn from leading faculty

As a first-generation Mexican American college student, Karen Gracia says the intersection of economics and immigration is an issue “near and dear to her heart.”

Despite her curiosity, Gracia said she can be shy. However, after a recent virtual lecture by New York Times economics reporter Eduardo Porter hosted by the University of Chicago, she asked a nuanced question in Spanish that drew applause from other students.

“It was a very good moment for me,” said Gracia, who asked about the impact of immigration on the U.S. labor supply. “I felt really included within economics, because usually when I speak to a professor, they don’t come from the same background as me. It was very cool to see that in the program.”

A student at Texas A&M University, Gracia is one of 45 students from across the country who recently participated in a summer institute held virtually at the University of Chicago focused on expanding diversity in economics.

Hosted by the Becker Friedman Institute for Economics with support from the Booth School of Business and the Kenneth C. Griffin Department of Economics, the Expanding Diversity in Economics (EDE) program seeks to support talented undergraduates from underrepresented backgrounds who want to pursue economics as a course of study or eventual career.

The applause that Gracia drew is the type of moment that the new summer program is meant to foster. Economics touches on myriad aspects of our everyday lives—from our jobs to the way we allocate resources in our communities—yet the economics profession does not reflect the diversity of the people who make up American society. According to a recent study, just 28% of economics majors in the U.S. are women, and less than 15% are Black, Hispanic or Native American.

BFI is already an intellectual hub for leading economists at the University of Chicago, but in hosting the Expanding Diversity in Economics program, it is stretching the University’s impact on the field even further.

This year’s inaugural three-week program convened students from colleges and universities across the country to learn from UChicago experts. The majority were women, and about half self-identified as Black or African American while 22% self-identified as Hispanic or Latinx. Several Pell Grant recipients, first-generation college students and nontraditional students were also represented in the cohort, which also included three current UChicago students.

Paige McKindra, a rising second year public policy and business economics major at UChicago, said the program both expanded her knowledge of research happening on campus and gave her valuable opportunities to meet students from other institutions.

“I’m really happy that UChicago set up a program like this,” McKindra said. “I love that I get to talk to people from different schools and with different backgrounds, and I find it really fascinating to learn about all the different types of research that these professors are doing. Economics is about more than investing, and it’s been great to learn about some of those other perspectives.”

Improving representation in economics

Faculty and guest speakers talked to the students broadly about micro and macroeconomic theory, but also delved into more specific topics—from studies of the economic impact of COVID-19 lockdowns to inclusion and inequality in children’s books.

John A. List, the Kenneth C. Griffin Distinguished Service Professor in Economics, served as an instructor for the program, and taught a week of morning classes on microeconomic inquiry.

“The problem is pretty clear: Economics tends to be dominated by white men,” List said. “That makes it exclusive, to the detriment of both society and the profession. White men do not have a monopoly on creative or innovative ideas, and the world would be a much better place if we welcomed everyone to economics with open arms. When I heard about this new initiative from BFI, I was all in.”

List’s research has included studies of discrimination in markets, the gender pay gap, and promoting diversity and inclusion within organizations. Taking advantage of an opportunity to introduce students to economic theory who will have the chance to make an impact in those spaces over the course of their careers, he said—whether they ultimately pursue economics—was “a no-brainer.”

“At BFI, we are educators first and foremost,” said Erik Hurst, the Frank P. and Marianne R. Diassi Distinguished Service Professor of Economics and deputy director of BFI. “We wanted to make progress toward increasing the depth and breadth of perspectives represented within economics by reaching people early in their college careers and exposing them to all the facets of economics as it is studied at the University of Chicago.”

Hurst, who was a lead organizer of the program along with BFI director Prof. Michael Greenstone, said every faculty member he asked to participate was an “enthusiastic yes.” In addition to List and Hurst, more than 20 faculty and guest speakers participated. They included Nobel laureate Richard Thaler, who discussed his research and upcoming book on “nudges”; Prof. Marianne Bertrand, who discussed gender in economics; and Yale University’s Kerwin Charles, a former UChicago faculty member who discussed socioeconomic inequalities.

“EDE has been the culmination of an entire career working in the diversity and inclusion space,” said Quentin Johnson, BFI’s director of diversity and inclusion programs. “The program itself has been a real labor of love.”

Johnson said he was impressed by the high-level questions students asked UChicago faculty, which he said consistently “got to the heart” of their research, and at times served as appropriate bases for research questions in their own right.

“That’s pretty powerful coming from an undergraduate, who is at the beginning of their academic career, to be able to have that kind of ‘intellectual tennis,’ so to speak, with people who are effectively grandmasters in the field,” he said. “It brings me a lot of joy.”

Jasmine Amaniampong, a student at North Carolina A&T State University, said she enjoyed not only the classes but the enthusiasm of other students, whose personalities shined through even over Zoom. As a Black student, she said, the program also changed the way she thought about her career path, and the professional opportunities she might have to impact her community.

Amaniampong said that program has pushed her toward considering a Ph.D. to further her study of economics. “As a current HBCU student, I want to be somewhere [for graduate school] that I feel like is an inclusive place, and I’m getting that from UChicago,” she said.

For more information about the Expanding Diversity in Economics Summer Institute, visit BFI’s website. Applications for next summer’s program will open in the fall.