Are College Business Majors Slackers?

Posted by: Louis Lavelle on April 20, 2011

Over the weekend, The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education published a joint project that gave the undergraduate business major a serious thrashing. To hear to the two publications tell it, undergraduate business majors are not the most studious individuals you’re likely to find on a college campus.

Here it is, in a nutshell:

Business majors spend less time preparing for class than do students in any other broad field, according to the most recent National Survey of Student Engagement: Nearly half of seniors majoring in business say they spend fewer than 11 hours a week studying outside class. In their new book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, the sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa report that on a national test of writing and reasoning skills, business majors had the weakest gains during the first two years of college. And when business students take the GMAT, the entry examination for M.B.A. programs, they score lower than do students in every other major.

The story says these issues are less of a problem at brand-name schools, “but get much below Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s top 50, and you’ll hear pervasive anxiety about student apathy”—which I guess is what passes for a plug these days. But that seems like cold comfort, particularly given the reasons for the problem cited by the two publications.

One is the very idea of an undergraduate business education, which is viewed by many as a path to a job, not enlightenment. Another is teamwork, which (let’s face it) frequently permits some team members to coast while their teammates do most of the work. Another is “time on task,” or the amount of time devoted to class work. None of these things is limited to programs below the top 50. Heck, the average amount of time spent on class work for top 50 schools is less than 15 hours a week—an eternity compared to one of the schools mentioned in the article (3.64 hours per week) but hardly the kind of workload that would leave a self-respecting humanities major gasping for breath.

There's a vigorous debate going on at the Times web site about the findings. with deans from three business schools writing essays defending their discipline. Dan Smith, of Indiana University's Kelley School of Business (Kelley Undergraduate Business Profile), says business school is frequently a destination for "high-ability and highly motivated" students, adding that it's "hardly a default option." Roger Jenkins, of Miami University's Farmer School of Business (Farmer Undergraduate Business Profile), described in detail all the ways students at his program are put through their paces. And Richard Durand, of American University's Kogod School of Business (Kogod Undergraduate Business Profile), makes a compelling case that business tops many other disciplines in terms of both depth and breadth. "A business education is very demanding," he writes. "Business students could very well be the most broadly educated students at a university."

So I ask you, our devoted readers of the undergraduate business variety, is the portrait presented by the Times and the Chronicle accurate? And if you're too busy studying to respond to this post, we understand entirely.

Reader Comments

David Welcker

April 20, 2011 12:41 PM

ALWAYS and FOREVER the achilles heel of the sterile academics. Bookworms do not and never will make great business managers. Business managers are people of execution...not coffee clatches nor philisophical fluff.

Most "A" students will find themselves working for the "B" students, while the "C" students own the businesses.

I have never met an academic that could teach me anything about making money.

The New York Times is chronically in financial trouble......hmmmmmm?


April 20, 2011 2:32 PM

I never had a business course in my life, and opened my own business 18 years ago--my accountant tells me it was probably a good thing I don't know how to do things "right." I make plenty of money, and haven't analyzed a single pie chart or graph that he's sent me with my financials over the years--I'm either too busy making money or taking time off away from work. I was one of three (out of about 30) small businesses for whom he does the books to make money last year. When I was in school, others were always chosen as "most likely to succeed" and I was categorized as "smart, but poor study habits." I still have poor study habits, but I have the time and money to do what I want...and still haven't taken a single business course.

Dissenting Wren

April 20, 2011 2:52 PM

Well, there you have it, right from the horses' mouths. The path to riches lies through the trough of pig ignorance.

Ben Hur

April 20, 2011 3:46 PM

I think there are some truths in the articles although I think the writers stretched them too far. Also statistics based on average can be misleading. Some minority schools may have very rigorous training compared to majority. I went to the business school of one of the biggest university in US and I did not cruise. There were a lot of assignments, projects and midterms. Furthermore, I took liberal arts classes with non-business and non-engineering students. I felt much more confident from my interactions with them in that I realized I knew much more about how things work in society.

Also a response to Don. You're right, you dont need to sit through business courses to start/run a business. My parents didn't and yet have a successful business. I went to business school anyway to quickly and correctly learn the various aspects of business. It helped me tremendously. Example - in debating with my parents because I actually do know more than them. Not being rude here....

Susie Watts

April 21, 2011 12:26 AM

As a private college counselor, I do not encourage my students to pursue a major in business because I have spoken with too many employers who say they would rather hire employees who come out of the liberal arts. I am a firm believer that the liberal arts teach students how to communicate verbally and in writing and teach critical thinking skills that are invaluable to any business.

College Direction
Denver, Colorado


April 21, 2011 9:41 AM

As an undergrad business school student myself, I see my classmates studying and preparing for class rigorously every day, and can say honestly that I do the same. (Caveat: Our b-school is ranked high, so I can't speak on behalf of other schools). I think that a business major, like any other major, is what you make it - sure, some team members can coast and just "get by" - but this will surely be reflected in their GPA and test scores. Most of the b-school students I know are incredibly ambitious, and work extraordinarily hard to do well in their classes.

I think ultimately, the goal of a business major is somewhat different than other majors. Business students are taught that it's just as important to spend time networking, polishing your resume, conducting informational interviews, and researching companies you'd like to work for as it is to study for class. Personally, I find it refreshing that my professors place an equal emphasis on personal development and academic development.

BW's Louis Lavelle

April 21, 2011 10:35 AM

Thanks for your comment Susie, but let me ask you something, because this is an argument I've heard many times before. If employers would rather hire liberal arts graduates than business graduates, why is it that virtually every survey I've ever seen shows that business graduates get paid more? You would think that if liberal arts grads were in such demand, the forces of supply and demand would result in higher salaries, but they don't. (By the way, I don't disagree with your assessment of the communication/critical thinking skills of liberal arts grads. Full disclosure: I'm one myself.) Louis Lavelle, Associate Editor, Bloomberg Businessweek

Double D

April 21, 2011 1:22 PM

I've just returned from a visit with 25 business students to the division HQ of a Fortune 500 firm. The trip was not part of any single class in which these students were enrolled. By itself, the best practices and examples shared by management were worth the time.
What I had not anticipated was:
1) the high quality of questions posed by these students. Clearly they have assimlated many valuable lessons and insights in their education.
2) the students' ablility to connect the concepts of their education to the strategic actions that were communicated by our host. This was very clear in the conversations on the road back to campus.
It is even more clear to me that
business education is rigorous and multifaceted. These students raised and shared points from a diverse set of business and non-business courses. More importantly, they demonstrated that there is no one correct approach to learning and that there is no one correct outcome. If anything, the experience reinforced the conclusion that one must be a life-long learner. Hence, the problem-solving skills that business education offers to students (and educators) is the advantage that is most critical to success, both as individuals and as part of any collective entity (firms and societies).


April 22, 2011 6:58 PM

I find a few faults with the article.

1) Many of the top undergrad b-schools do not allow undergrads to matriculate into b-school until after their first two years of college. By then, these students should have had plenty of time to debate, read broadly, learn to think critically, and learn what they're supposed to learn from a broad based education.

2) So what if undergrad b-school students score the lowest on the GMAT? The GMAT is only used as an indicator of performance in MBA programs. If they can't score well on the GMAT, they won't get into an MBA program. My MBA program (a top school) had many undergrad business majors - the ones who can score well on the GMAT.

Try this instead: take the Beta Gamma Sigma class at each undergrad b-school and compare the results on the GMAT to the results from the Phi Beta Kappa class in any other major on campus. I could be wrong, but I bet you won't find a statistically significant difference.

3) I've never heard of an undergrad level accounting or finance major engineering collateralized debt obligations. CDOs are exotic instruments typically engineered by master and doctoral level graduates of math, physics, finance, and engineering programs (and some MBAs).

4) What is the alternative curriculum for accounting and finance majors if the current curriculum is too narrow? We need good accountants and financiers. Not every productive member of society needs to read Chaucer and master calculus.

5) It seems like we're afraid to address the quality issue. Not every undergraduate b-school is created equal. Someone has to be on the left side of the normal curve.

6) Business is composed of many disciplines, so undergrad b-schools offer many programs. I completed an undergrad MIS program at a good school. I took calculus, statistics, physical sciences, a fair share of humanities, foreign language, etc - all before moving on to computer science courses, data structures, algorithms, systems analysis and design, relational algebra and database programming. Additionally, we had to work in our field in a co-op.

Undergrad b-schoolers can easily get a great, well rounded education that will allow for the broad based learning as well as preparing for a career. Get a minor in english or math.

As a hiring manager, I look for students are curious about lots of different subject matter. Hasn't failed me yet.


April 24, 2011 12:19 AM

I would say that, compared to a highly ranked undergraduate engineering program, business majors don't work as hard. However, I would be willing to bet that business majors put more work into studying than the average liberal arts major does.

Also (assuming resumes are comparable), if I were a manager, I would hire a fresh college graduate who studied accounting or finance before I would hire a student who chose to major in political science, sociology, or economics.

I'm currently studying at a "Businessweek Top 50" program, and my peers here are not only extremely motivated, but they also do a solid job at communicating.

My only wish is that the value of humility be pushed across all b-schools. For the average undergrad business student, their level of studying does not serve their overinflated egos justice.


April 27, 2011 9:31 PM

My background is that of a liberal arts major (history) with a business minor, then an MBA. I now teach management, marketing, and MIS as an adjunct.

Comments regarding the Times article:

1. Yes, many do choose a business major as a default. I did. The reason? It's hard to visualize -- very few books for children and young people are written about successful businesspeople -- particularly other than corporate CEOs. Thus, many young people fantasize about being a doctor, lawyer, etc. -- very few dream of becoming a retail store manager or devising marketing campaigns.

2. The Times article referred to many students choosing business as a major "in purely instrumental terms, as a plausible path to a job..." as if this were a NEGATIVE! Someone choosing pre-law or pre-med as a major is doing exactly the same thing -- choosing this major as a "plausible path to a job" -- since when is this a negative?

3. Regarding the "Academically Adrift" study mentioned in the article -- the article mentioned that this study looked at the performance of students on a single measure -- The Collegiate Learning Assessment, which is described as a "national essay test." I don't think that this is an accurate means of measuring business students after only two years of study. I teach primarily beginning classes and I find that one of my hardest tasks is to get students to understand what business people beyond the first level of workers is trying to do -- they've seldom (if ever) SEEN it. It's very difficult, for instance, in a beginning management class, to discuss business organizational structures -- at most, if they work, they've only seen their own immediate work group and find it difficult, if not impossible, to visualize anything above that. Thus, in the first two years of studying business, the skills that are supposed to be assessed by this essay test -- "writing and reasoning" -- are not necessarily those emphasized. These skills are not addressed until at least the third and fourth years.

4. Regarding teams in classes, the events described in the Times article ("students divided up the tasks in ways they felt comfortable with") reflect the reality in the real working world -- no business manager would willingly assign a task to someone that they knew wouldn't do a good job with the task! I once went to a presentation given by someone in my state's local Department of Labor office. He cited five things that employers were looking for in prospective employees. I've forgotten two of them because they were things I could not emphasize in the classroom, but the other three were the ability to work in teams, the ability to communicate, and technical (specifically computer) ability. Thus, I emphasize all three in my classes. I have had students walk out of my class and drop it in order to avoid working as part of a group on any activity -- which, to me, reinforces the importance of having at least SOME group activities. (In most, I do have them prepare their own papers and do not usually assign papers in groups -- thus allowing individual assessment of communication skills.)

5. I agree that instructors should seek to develop those students with weak points, but there you run into another problem -- the current reliance on part-time instructors (such as myself) who have to also work elsewhere in order to earn a decent living and/or large class sizes. When I was an undergrad in the 1970s, there were a few introductory classes that were large lecture classes of 100+ -- no instructor teaching such a class could possibly have time to focus on weak points of individual students. This practice continues at many colleges (mine is a two-year college and we don't, but I've seen it elsewhere still.) Even full-time professors at my college sometimes take additional classes beyond the minimum and/or moonlight at other institutions
in order to earn additional pay.

6. The problems with testing (as cited by one student in the Times article) regarding take-home tests and students using Google to find the answers are also inherent in the two problems I cited as part of #5 (overworked professors and large class sizes). Personally, I have never given a take-home test, but I know instructors who have. The most common reason cited? Ease of grading. For instance, if essay questions are given the instructor specifies that the answers must be not hand-written so that he/she can READ the answers because "otherwise I'd have to read their handwriting" (direct quote from a colleague)! I also personally object to giving purely multiple-choice questions on a test (regardless of in-class or take-home) in my effort to emphasize communication skills, but I know lots of instructors who give nothing else. Why? Ease of grading -- you just run it through the machine to score it.

Thus, some of the problems cited are simply inherent in the skills and subject matter of a business curriculum and others are simply a reality of life in the current college atmosphere.


April 27, 2011 11:25 PM

I'm currently a business undergrad, but that is after switching from government to english and finally settling on business. Personally, I believe with increasing competition from both home and abroad, the necessity to have marketable skills grows by the day. At my own school, a highly ranked public university, I would have to say I work equally hard in business and liberal arts classes (with about the same grades, A- usually). But I also spend time outside of class cultivating the cultured side of my brain (^^^^^ its a Pynchon reference, get it?????). That being said, I have talked to friends at other schools where the business school is a joke. So if anything, this debate should prove as a wake up call to college deans to take another look at their b-school programs. Also, (whats a good post without a trolling comment) Susie Watts you should be a stand up comedian. Getting a paying job with a liberal arts education???? HAHAAA, unless of course you mean at home depot, in which case I agree with you.

Bill (Dr. William J. Ward) aka @DR4WARD

April 28, 2011 8:56 AM

The problem is not the students but an antiquated business accreditation system that emphasizes outdated academic journal publication and faculty hires who have little or no professional or teaching experience.

Is it any wonder why students are not engaged with this obsolete learning model?

The current business accreditation system and rankings rewards the status quo, not student learning and innovation.

Where is the incentive to change and engage students? It is not being measured in the current business accreditation system.

I have written about the "Culture Shift" needed for business schools to become open and dynamic organizations.


November 28, 2011 12:51 AM

What are you high? Business is an excellent major to study. Look at Gordon Gecko, Ken Lay and all those rich bankers. What do you think they studied? Engineering? I don't recall ever seeing Warren Buffet having to fret over the inefficiency of his car. Businessmen make bucko bux and they wear the nicest suits, smoke the best cigars and have the hottest secretaries(although lets be honest, they're only hired for one thing in particular, right guys).

Here's an article from a CBS (see BS) blogger talking smack about us Biz-Maj's

I totally layeth down the smack down on this dumb chick.

Here lets go down the list of major wrongness.

1. Business majors don't learn much in business school.

WRONG! They learn plenty, they learn to network, to meet new people, to take risks and how to socialize on a professional level(start practicing your golf swing). Sure this is stuff they may already know and most likely aren't taught in class, but most the pro-biz-peeps learn from the best school of all, the streets. Either they get in and conquer or they get creamed, just like in real life, now that's about as 'real world' as you can get son.

2. You won't make as much money as you think.

Dude, look at what a businessman wears. It's a frigg'n suit and suits cost money, nice ones cost even more. Where ya think they're making all that paper from? From working in business!

3. The job market is crawling with business majors.

Damn right. What can I say, the markets have spoken, business is cool and people want to be cool. That's not a meat-headed observation that's all American capitalism!

4. Your quality of life could suck.

You are what you make yourself out to be. Don't let this johnny-come-lately blogger tell you different if you suck at your career chances are it's probably because you suck. The solution then is very obvious, what you need to do is to stop sucking.

5. Majoring in business could hurt your MBA chances.

No way. You're just gonna sit there and tell me that having spent 5 years studying business is somehow detrimental to studying even more business? No frigg'n way. Worried about the GMAT? Than study, do it the night before if you have to that's usually the time business majors are must productive anyway.

6. You don't need a business degree to work in business.

Sure and I don't really need a degree in acting to be an actor, look at all the non-college educated actors we have in movies and on TV. I really don't need a degree in medicine to be a surgeon, I could just read a bunch of books and experiment on road kill. College isn't necessary for learning as much as it is for being able to show that you are capable of making a 4-5 year commitment, employers like that.

7. You can make more money with an economics degree.

You sure can. You can also make more with an engineering degree, but those fields require lots of math and that's for nerds anyway.

8. Your parents want you to major in business.

Honor your mother and father that's in the bible yo.

Engineering, math and science are topics for straight up shy nerds who do nothing all day but tedious calculations. STEM fields just aren't for people who can actually communicate, socialize, network and get stuff done. Of course business people aren't hitting the books as hard, they're too busy making connections and having an actual social life that's where the real work gets done. Am I right?


January 9, 2012 8:38 PM

Youre joking right? Gekko isnt even real and Lay is dead.....
The majority of fortune 500 CEOs had engineering/science degrees....


January 21, 2012 3:15 AM

JetSkiTurboQuad9Killah are you a troll?
Umm Warren Buffet studied economics not business as an undergrad. Also, what a businessman wears is what is the default uniform for the job, not what they choose. You are also making the assumption that "businessmen" were business majors. I can't tell you how many people work in finance who had degrees in physics, engineering, math. Nerds as you call them. The fact of the matter though is that the market for those with a degree in business is supersaturated. There is no more room for people who studied marketing because that is basically everybody. When asked what degrees CEO's value, most respondents said engineering first, then economics. Business wasn't near on top. (Want to know why? You don't challenge yourselves, you pass it off as being something nerds do...) And yes "nerds" often can communicate and do have lives. But the fact of the matter is business majors don't generally get the best jobs upon graduation anymore, and the perception that they are slackers is a big part of this.

As for having an undergraduate business degree hurting your chances at getting an MBA, I will let the statistics speak for themselves. Hint: take more and harder classes... those ones for "nerds"

Now as for the "markets having spoken" as a response to "the market is crawling with business majors" either you haven't read the statement properly, or you failed econ 101. This economics student thinks both.

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