Why a Business Degree May Not Be a Good Bet


Thinking about getting a business degree? Or are you still paying off your student loans?  Perhaps it is a sign of growing cynicism in our country, but in her recent article 8 reasons Not to Get a Business Degree, CBS’s Lynn O’Shaughnessy seems to be calling into question the whole approach to business education.

Among the more interesting reflections that she provides include:

1)      You will learn a set of values that will mess you up.   Some prominent labor economists conducted a study on Harvard business majors, 15 years after graduation.  An overwhelming conclusion was that this population’s obsession with making money and becoming successful makes them far less able to achieve reasonable work-life balance.  This group believes that if they take time off, they will suffer adverse consequences in career advancement, and pay.  So the norm – 70 hour work weeks and associated struggles with home and family.

2)      You won’t learn much of value.  There is a new best-selling book out by Richard Arum called Academically Adrift wherein his research suggests that 45% of college students don’t learn much of anything in their first two years of college, while more than one out of three students graduate with no improvement in writing and analytical skills.  He further argues that the students who learn LEAST in college include social work, education and business majors.

3)      What it takes to succeed, they don’t teach in business school.   According to one recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the attributes prized most by employers seeking the “ideal” candidate  include:

a)  Communication skills

b)  Strong work ethic

c)  Ability to work well in a team

d)  Initiative

e)  Prior leadership experience

I assume these five attributes are prized because they are predictors of success in business.  Arguably, b) and d) have more to do with one’s character or upbringing.  O’Shaughnessy argues that most of attributes are not primarily taught in business programs (which focus more heavily on the analytical skills of business).  Communications skills are more likely to be learned by liberal arts students.  (Interestingly, one of the findings in the NACE study was that 89% of surveyed employers said they want college students to pursue a liberal arts education.)

I admit it, if one of my sons had wanted to be a philosophy or history major. I probably would have discouraged him.  Today, I’m not so sure.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Why a Business Degree May Not Be a Good Bet

  1. Isn’t this really about the fact that our values are changing? Or should be changing? I think where business school — and even high schools — are missing the boat is that we are not training students to become entrepreneurs. We’re not encouraging them or training them to become self-employed, to start businesses. And the new reality is, jobs are scarce and they will probably never become plentiful again. So we all need to find new and innovative ways to earn a living — and do so in a way that we can have balance in our lives. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to get a business degree — I think the curriculum needs to keep up with the times.

    • I agree it is more about continually rethinking what a good program should be about, and the world is changing around us. It is hard to change, though, once a faculty is in place – hired because it was felt that their skills were in demand.

      My sense is that there is far less conversation at universities about what good teaching looks like, and what topics are most beneficial, not only to students, but to society as a whole.

      • It is hard to change. But change — and quite dramatic change — is a necessity now — not just for universities but for business, health care, government etc. The warning signs have been there for quite a long time but we’ve chosen to ignore them, hoping they’ll go away. It’s an exciting time we live in — if we open our minds to the possibilities and dare to tread where no one’s tread before. There’s an awful lot at stake if we don’t.

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