A Defense of Business Majors

I read a recent piece from The New York Times today questioning the rigorousness of undergraduate business degrees. Basically, the article presented evidence that business classes are soft, students don’t learn as much as those of other majors, and a traditional liberal arts education holds greater value. I also saw another article raising some of the same questions about MBA degrees. You can obviously see my interest in this debate. As a business major concentrating in finance, I feel like it is my duty to defend my degree’s honor and provide a rebuttal to these arguments.

For the past four years, I have been a student at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management, which BusinessWeek recently ranked #9 in the country. The majority of my experience has been overwhelmingly positive and I have nothing but the utmost respect for my professors and fellow classmates. Yes, there were some really easy classes along the way, but I think you will find those in any major. For the most part, my professors have challenged me with the course material but they also made it relevant by tying it to current and real life events. I went from knowing nothing about business to being able to invest my own money and speak intelligently about the markets and the financial crisis. And yes, our coursework involves a lot of in class discussions and group work, but I think the point of all this is to prepare students for life in the workforce. Many of my Arts & Sciences friends tell me they wish they had more opportunities for group work in their classes. The ability to work effectively with others is a valuable and highly underrated skill in almost any career. The students that I have had to work with have been absolutely professional and accountable. I have rarely had issues with inequitable distributions of work.

I do think there are two broader issues that both the Times and Poets and Quants articles failed to address. First, it ignored the economics of higher education. College is really expensive. For all majors. Unfortunately, not all majors are created equal in terms of employability. Therefore it is not unreasonable for a student and his family to choose a major at least partly because it is perceived to have a better chance of maximizing his future income. I wonder sometimes how a teacher or social worker (both of whom I admire greatly) will ever pay off his or her student loans from a 4 year private institution on their modest salaries. This is a problem that has potentially serious economic and social consequences. I am starting to agree with Peter Thiel that there is a higher education bubble. (Note that I say the decision is based on perceived future income. As the article noted, the average starting salary of business majors is higher, but the gap narrows as time goes on. However, perception is just as important as reality when you’re a college freshmen and all you’re going to see is the six figure Wall Street salaries and bonuses, even though few students will actually get those jobs).

The second issue has to do with MBAs. I do not have an MBA so I cannot claim to be an expert on the subject. I have spoken with older folks both with and without MBAs about the issue. As a Business Analyst at Deloitte, I am also obligated to get an MBA at some point if I want to stay with the company after a few years. From what I understand, the MBA is as much about the degree itself as it is about having it on your resume. A plain Bachelor’s degree is no longer special; you need an advanced degree to differentiate yourself. For better or worse, having an MBA will help you get a raise, earn a promotion, and in general open up more career opportunities. Therefore some students may be motivated to pursue an MBA not for the learning but simply for the degree. With that kind of attitude, it’s no wonder the academic environment at even the top MBA programs has broken down. The devaluation of the Bachelor’s degree and the sustainability of getting more advanced degrees is another serious question that merits more discussion.

I will concede a few points to the writer of the Times article. Business majors are notoriously bad at writing; even we know it. I have been fortunate enough to be an above average writer since elementary school and I have consciously tried to hone that skill in college by writing for the campus newspaper and my blog. BC also has a significant liberal arts core requirement which forces all students to take at least a few classes that require written papers. Still, the writing skills of many business students are woefully underdeveloped. I wouldn’t blame business schools entirely for this failure though; some of the fault has to be placed on the K-12 education system. In my opinion, a high school graduate should be able to construct a coherent essay. Yet despite all the standardized testing from No Child Left Behind, students are coming out of high school without this and other basic skills.

The article also made a point to distinguish between the top undergraduate business programs and lower tier ones. I am grateful to be attending a top notch institution such as BC and perhaps my experience has been more similar to that of the University of Virginia than some of the other schools criticized in the article. Many of my peers are heading to Wall Street, Big Four accounting firms, consultancies, or big name corporations. As the article pointed out, students from lower tier business schools are going into regional banks, insurance companies, or governments. These two groups have different needs and these differences should be reflected in their respective curricula. While I think all students should get the best education possible, the contrast does allude to the need for the right type of education.

Finally, rhetoric tradition requires me to make one completely self deprecating statement to feign modesty and exonerate myself from any shortcomings in my arguments. I have thus far defended the value of an undergraduate business education, in particular my own at BC. In fact I think non-business students should be encouraged to take a few business classes in their four years of college because a lot of concepts are important not just as a job seeker, but as a citizen. At the same time, if I had one academic regret in college, it’s that I never got a chance to double major in a field that either improved my quantitative skills, computer programming ability, or scientific knowledge. I think these skills are complementary and, to borrow one of business school’s favorite words, synergistic with any business education. It is especially for important for aspiring entrepreneurs who want to be on the cutting edge of technology and understand what’s going on. Thus I do think it is important to encourage business students to take plenty of non-business courses.

I’ve ranted on long enough. What do you think? Are undergraduate business and MBA degrees becoming a joke? Or is it part of a larger problem with education? Please comment!