Back in 1968, about 13% of Bachelor degrees awarded were in business, making it the third most popular major at the time. Today, about one out of every five Bachelor degrees awarded are in business, far outstripping the next most popular major (health sciences, which includes nursing).
The popularity of the business major and the perception that it is a practical path in a questionable future continues to attract. Yet, once students begin to look at majoring in business, a number of questions arise-- for good reason: the business major has almost as many different permutations as there are schools offering the major.
US News and World Report lists top undergraduate business programs by specialty areas: accounting, led by UT Austin; entrepreneurship, Babson; finance, marketing, real estate and insurance, Wharton; and, operations management and quantitative management, MIT. There are still other categories under business warranting consideration such as hotel management, Cornelland UNLV, taxation…the business major can even become as specialized as funeral or food services management.
Bloomberg/Business Week’s ranking of the Top Undergraduate Business Programs was once a good site for prospective undergraduate business majors to gain their bearings. This year is its last for ranking programs and it is ending its run in an incredible manner.
Heading this year’s list is Villanova (a fabulous Philadelphia-area Augustinian institution and recent winner of the NCAA Basketball title) which was 24th in 2014. Based on the heavy weighting of Employer Surveys, Villanova miraculously leapt past Boston College, Michigan, NYU, Cornell, Emory, Georgetown and Wharton. Previously, Notre Dame’s Mendoza School of Business was the perennial top program.
To make its rankings even more curious, the aforementioned Babson, Fox School of Business at Temple University, one of the largest undergraduate business programs in the country, and USC Marshall School of Business are missing.
Beyond the rankings, it is important to understand how various schools admit students into their business programs. Some, such as USC’s Marshall, Boston University’s Questrom and Cornell’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management (Cornell) begin freshman year.
Others, such as University of Michigan (Ross,) admits students sophomore year based upon GPA. NYU (Sterne), UC Berkeley (Haas) and Emory (Goizueta) begin junior year and have high GPA requirements. While a student might gain admission to the University of Michigan, NYU, or UC Berkeley, getting into their business programs is not guaranteed.
Besides the challenges of gaining admissions into these programs, there are fundamental concerns about undergraduates majoring in business. First, who is actually teaching these business courses? It appears that many schools, including Wharton, prefer faculty with PhDs to actual hands-on businessmen or women. Business, by its very nature, is practical: just how effective can an academic with little applied business experience be?
There is also a question about what these teachers teach. Many use case studies involving corporate strategy: how many students will be able to apply such material to their first jobs in business, internships, or coops?
To gain a sense of an approach to the challenges of teaching business consider Babson’s curriculum. Its 2,100 undergraduates mix liberal arts and business coursework into a “practical business education.” During freshman year, all students take Foundations of Management and Entrepreneurship (FME). In the course students learn to start and run (and eventually) liquidate a business (with all profits destined to charity). Business leaders and entrepreneurs teach the bulk of its classes using the school’s own copyrighted methodology called Entrepreneurial Thought and Action, combining a deep understanding of business fundamentals with action, experimentation and creativity.
While many prospective applicants consider the business major by default, do not. Do a little investigation into what the school offers and what it is you want to achieve. Ask about recent graduates and their success at finding jobs or continuing to graduate school. Look for programs that will provide a solid background in business law, accounting, marketing, finance, organizational behavior, international markets, a generous dose of liberal arts and many opportunities for practical application. Then, possibly, the world of John D. Rockefeller, JP Morgan and Warren Buffett will beckon.