What's Wrong With a Business Degree?

Written by Bryce Hammons, published on 2013-04-25 00:00:00


According to a recent New York Times article, "The Default Major: Skating Through B School," by David Glenn, it appears that undergraduate business students are not investing a lot of time into studying – or even into learning, for that matter. While business is one of the fastest-growing fields in U.S. higher education, both Glenn and Richard Arum – a professor at New York University who co-authored "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses" – found that business students spent less time studying and preparing for class, while making fewer long-term educational gains during their time in school, than students in other majors.

Degree = Good Job Mentality

And the problem is not confined to business-related schooling alone; the results can be seen well beyond business majors and produce an even larger-scale educational malaise. According to Arum, his findings are indicative of a much broader set of issues within our higher education system. To many students, an undergraduate education is viewed as merely a means to attaining a degree that will help them land a great starter job; it's not about bettering themselves during the four-year (or longer) stint. Thus, the end result – a degree – is all that matters. All they want is the piece of paper, signed and stamped, that gets you work post-graduation.

Arum believes we now put too much emphasis on degree attainment and not enough on the actual "quality and character of learning outcomes." In their research, Arum and his co-author Josipa Roksa found that business students spent less than one hour per day on coursework; business-oriented students were the least likely group to spend time studying and prepping for class out of all the undergrad majors in the study. And this was a main contributing factor to undergraduate business students making the lowest gains, during their education, on measures of critical thinking, written communication and complex reasoning.

Education for the Sake of Bettering Oneself

What the research boils down to is that if we want to stem the tide of this progressive undermining of the value of undergraduate degrees as a whole, it's imperative that students once again adopt the ethic of challenging themselves to be better. And it is a joint venture: students, faculty, and educational curriculum and policy makers must all take a step back, ponder over where our current educational priorities lie, and make whatever changes it takes. If an undergraduate degree has reached the point of being solely about procuring that special piece of paper – and not about learning something new and bettering oneself each and every day – then we have some urgent steps to take in order to create a better overall educational system.

Not All B School Students are the Same

However, what seems to be a damning statement for our student population – as well as for our education system as currently constituted – may appear slightly one-sided in the light of a few additional factors. For one thing, not all undergraduate business students match their characterization in the book as a simple category of mercenary opportunists. There are multitudes of business students enrolled today who take their education very, very seriously. These students don't think it's simply about the diploma at the end – they want the whole package. They are striving for an all-encompassing betterment of their being. These students aren't just concerned with whether educational opportunities will yield them credentials or not – they are focused on how they can best make the most of those opportunities.

Online Students Juggling Work, Family + School

In particular, many of the aforementioned experts seem to be overlooking a large subset of the student population. For example, many online students enroll in classes while juggling a host of other responsibilities, work and family concerns chief among them. For the most part, these students are highly and internally motivated to attain their goals and dreams at any cost. They'll work and handle family responsibilities all day and then turn around and go online at night to finish an assigned paper or test. Many will continue this way right into online MBA programs and beyond, to doctoral and other degree programs. They'll sweat and strive to rise to every occasion, and they will attain personal betterment in the name of higher education.

So, while this study may have definite merits and should make us reflect on the state, not only of our education system, but also of our student population, that isn't the whole story. It doesn't take into consideration the many students heading into higher-level degree programs (e.g., the MBA or doctoral degree) and seems to be taking an oversimplified view of an entire population of undergraduate students, speaking of them with implied pejorative labels: lazy, vacuous, and uninspired party animals, simply counting the days until they're presented with a money-producing degree.

We’re All in This Together

In the end, most students aren't in the game only for a large paycheck, although that does go a long way toward paying back the costs of their educations! What they want is a better life. That's what the goal of education should be all along – to achieve greater success through a strong work ethic, unstoppable dedication, and a will to irrevocably change the very fabric of one's life. And it takes a concerted effort from everyone involved, from the students and faculty all the way to the administrators and educational policymakers. The question is simple. Is what you're doing working? Is it producing more than easily measured targets such as higher graduation rates and positive job numbers upon graduation? Is it also showing signs of even more vital gains in writing ability, analytical and synthetic acumen, critical thinking, reasoning skills, and a habit of continuing personal improvement?

After all, that's what higher education is supposed to be for, isn't it? We're all in this together, and all of us – student, instructor, policy maker and more – are responsible. We all hold the keys to a better, more fruitful and fulfilling educational experience. And it seems we already have a foundation in place from which to build. So why not step forward and create something special together? The gains we make will help create a better world where the highest mark of achievement is an ethic of innovation, learning, and self-improvement – not just a piece of paper to hand to recruiters.