The (Potential) Problems with Majoring in Business

Thanks to David Congdon for pointing out that The Chronicle of Higher Ed recently published a list of the most popular majors at America’s forty largest public universities. (subscription required, but you can see a picture of the table on David’s Twitter account) If I missed it, it’s probably because I didn’t want to see a result that I probably could have guessed:

Business is the most popular major at 23 of those 40 universities, and second or third most popular at seven more.

Street sign of Wall St in New York
Licensed by Creative Commons (Sparkx 11)

Worse yet, the liberal arts showed up only once: as the third most popular major at University of Texas, Arlington.

Now, I’m sitting in an office just feet from Bethel’s Business department. So let me make clear that I value my colleagues who teach in that field: they are passionate about what they do, work hard at their craft, and embrace the mission of Christian higher education.

And, in the abstract, I don’t think that it’s a bad idea to major in business.

But I find it enormously troubling that that field is so disproportionately popular in American higher education.

First, a problem that should be familiar to any business major: at a certain point, the supply of any good or service will exceed the demand for it.

Yes, too many marketing majors can saturate the market.

At which point there’s very little that even gifted marketers can do to make attractive their college-trained, debt-laden product to employers who either need fewer employees with that training — or have recognized that the market has been overlooking other sources of the same labor (e.g., history majors who are trained to pick up field-specific skills as they go, but already have the scarce writing, research, critical thinking, interpersonal, and intercultural skills that employers claim to value above major).

Look, if you have a passion for marketing or feel a calling to management, that’s great. Business is a wonderful fit for you: you’ll enjoy and thrive in courses that will move you closer to your goals. Let me introduce you to my neighbors here at Bethel!

But that description fits only a tiny minority of 18-year olds. In my fifteen years of talking to those students and their parents, I’ve found that most are trying to make an important decision (college major) with too little information and too much anxiety. Desperate to ensure employment, they pick what seems like the most straightforward path to a job. But because their decision is only one of millions like it, they actually risk making their employment less likely.

Then there’s a second way in which choosing a business major (in general) out of a desire for employment is actually a reckless choice. Jeffrey Selingo explained earlier this year in the Washington Post:

…not all business majors are created equal in the job market. Research shows that students who major in general business and marketing are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed, meaning they hold jobs that don’t require a college degree. They also earn less than those in more math-focused business majors, such as finance and accounting.

Selingo, There Is Life After CollegeSelingo didn’t link to these studies, but one (from Georgetown University in 2014) found that 6.6% of experienced college graduates who had majored in human resources management were still unemployed. Compare that to 4.8% of accounting grads and 5.2% of those in finance — and 5.8% of those poor benighted history buffs who picked that useless major.

Here too, all this could be market-sensitive. Maybe we were already seeing actual, lasting market saturation; maybe 2014 was a blip, and five years later the figures will look very different. But Selingo noted a deeper problem:

…math-focused business majors tend to work harder while in school than do those pursuing a general business degree. Students majoring in business spend less time studying than anyone else on campus, according to the National Survey of Student Engagement. They also spend less time reading and writing than other majors. One analysis of 10 public four-year universities in Texas found that of the 40 courses needed for a business degree, only one required a writing assignment of 20 or more pages, and only three required assignments of at least 10 pages.

(That last point helps explain why my business colleagues are not only working on writing within their curriculum, but tend to stress that they’re part of a liberal arts college whose general education curriculum emphasizes writing.)

Selingo noted evidence that business majors (again, in the aggregate — not at any particular institution) fare much worse than math, science, engineering, and humanities majors in developing vitally important skills: not only writing, but analysis and critical thinking.

So if you’re a prospective student or parent wondering what to do with all this, I’d echo Selingo’s sage advice, knowing that it could still lead you to business… or to one of a number of other, less-saturated fields of study:

Find a major that will challenge you to work hard and spend time on specific tasks, such as writing, reading or math programs, and one that will present you with opportunities to learn from the best professors and be surrounded by peers who will constantly challenge you.