Building on Strength in the Applied Economics Program
When Prakash Loungani stepped into the role of program director for Johns Hopkins University’s MS in Applied Economics program in April 2023, he brought with him not only extensive knowledge of economics, but also 35 years of teaching experience in higher education. Putting that expertise to use, Loungani has an eye toward maintaining the features that have made the program a mainstay of academic excellence, while also ensuring it adapts to changes in the skills students need and employers value.
Prior to joining JHU full time, Loungani was an assistant director with the International Monetary Fund and previously worked in the Federal Reserve System, the University of Florida, and as an adjunct lecturer for JHU’s Advanced Academic Programs, School of Advanced International Studies, and Carey Business School. He is the author of Confronting Inequality: How Societies Can Choose Inclusive Growth and is an active researcher and commentator who blogs as the Unassuming Economist. In addition to leading the applied economics program, Loungani teaches macroeconomics for AAP.
Read on for insight from Loungani on the program’s goals, recent changes, and future plans.
What does this program seek to accomplish, and what is your role in achieving those goals?
We both attract from and send students to the private sector, government organizations, and academia, so the applied economics program really seeks to provide top-notch content that can be useful to students regardless of where they end up in their next job or where they are in their current job. We like to say “content is king,” so we focus on ensuring students get a first-rate degree that will help them throughout their professional careers.
This is a program that has a very good reputation and is recognized as a leader in its field, both for its online as well as onsite program. And I’ve been teaching as an adjunct at AAP for over a decade and at Hopkins for nearly 25 years, so I know the quality of a Johns Hopkins education. Given that, my role, first and foremost, is to sustain the excellence of the program and then, secondly, to build on that excellence.
Right now, times are changing quite rapidly because of data analytics, artificial intelligence, and other advancements, so the skills and knowledge students are likely to need in the next five or ten years are very different from what they would have needed even a decade ago. When I talk to our students, what they are asking for is more training in machine learning and data analytics, and in more heavy-duty quantitative methods and big data. These have been around for a while but are now front and center in what employers are seeking. So, part of building on the excellence of the program will mean incorporating these skills at pretty much every stage of the education our students get.
What other changes have you seen in terms of what students are seeking and what employers value?
What we have seen is that many more economists are ending up in the private sector than used to be the case. A decade ago, many of our students were from government agencies and they were really looking for domain knowledge—they wanted to learn antitrust issues or industrial organization because they were working in the Department of Justice or the Federal Trade Commission. Now we have students who are seeking to go into the tech sector, to work for Amazon or Google, and need specialized data skills to do so.
And it’s not just the private sector; the public sector is demanding more and more of those skills as well. For example, we used to place students at the IMF based on domain knowledge, on the fact that students knew international finance well, for instance. Now the IMF is more likely to ask me, “how many programming languages do they know?” So, the nature of what employers are demanding is changing, and we have to adapt.
Looking ahead, I think the biggest challenge is how AI and other technologies will shape the nature of future jobs. We are bringing in students with the promise of giving them solid academic training, which, of course, we will fulfill. But they would be disappointed if that training does not lead them to successful careers, so we have to be thinking of how our academic offerings are training them for the needs of their jobs. We are very attuned to that and committed to ensuring our students have the skills they will need.
How does the program prepare students who may be traveling along different paths?
We have a very rich mix of destinations, so we have to focus on giving students a solid academic education that prepares them for a variety of tasks. Students who already have some work experience or know strongly where they want to go can pick electives accordingly. Someone who knows they are going to the Department of Justice might take more microeconomic electives like industrial organization, while someone who thinks the IMF is their destination will work more along a macroeconomics track, doing international finance, monetary theory, and time series econometrics. We have laid out tracks that they can follow, but we also have students who are not sure where they will end up, and we want to provide those students with the training that will equip them for whatever job they end up in.
This is a ten-course program, so we advise students as they go beyond the core courses to pick carefully, and we have faculty advisers who work with them to ascertain their weaknesses and strengths and to guide them.
What other factors have had an impact on the Applied Economics program in recent years, and what effect will they have going forward?
Our division has recently opened the MS in Financial Economics program, which is another factor that inspires us toward the type of curricular innovation that will help us serve our MS in Applied Economics students into the future. That’s one of the most exciting—and most challenging—parts of the job.
Another factor in recent years was the lessons we learned during the pandemic on how to do things better online. I think we learned how to engage students more, and to improve the tools for online teaching. We had a strong online program even before the pandemic and these tools and lessons learned have made it even stronger. There are strengths in both online and in-person instruction, but the bottom line is we are going to need quite a bit of both in the future, so continuing to improve in both modes of instruction will always be important.