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A number of commentaries have recently questioned the value of undergraduate business education. Most are characterized by at least one of three themes: that business education is narrow in scope, largely a matter of common sense, and is pursued by those who are motivated primarily by money. Viewing business education from the outside looking in, it’s easy to find anecdotal evidence to support such positions. I write to provide an insider’s perspective on the aims of business education and the qualities of those who pursue it. The knowledge and skills developed at major business schools and the types of students these schools attract are vital to the success of all organizations, for-profit or otherwise.
The case for business education begins with a simple reality: Every organization, whether it’s the Red Cross, a local library, a museum, a hospital, or even a church, operates like a business. Every organization exists to deliver value to one or more constituency groups. A software company has customers, a symphony has patrons, and a church has parishioners. Every organization must secure a steady stream of financial resources. The leaders of all organizations must be good stewards of those resources; they must develop and monitor budgets, assess the financial implications of various actions, plan for the future, and organize the resources necessary to implement those plans.
The development of these and related skills is the basic aim of business education, which should perhaps be referred to by the more accurate and less profit-focused moniker of "management education." Indeed, business education is too important to limit just to business majors.
The broad applicability of business education arises in part from curricula that are grounded in liberal arts and sciences. Leading business schools have long recognized that effective leaders bring a knowledge base that extends beyond the functional areas of business. Accordingly, our students typically take roughly half their coursework in fields outside of business. We firmly believe that knowledge of the arts, humanities, literature, and the natural and social sciences provides rich perspective that can stimulate novel approaches to problem-solving. At Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business (Kelley Undergraduate Business Profile), for example, we routinely design students’ programs of study so that non-business courses dovetail with specific major areas of study within the school. We have even experimented with workshops in the business school taught by non-business faculty. For example, we recently engaged performing arts faculty to develop our students’ improvisation skills. We’ve found that successful execution of complex projects often requires quick thinking on your feet.
The vast number of organizations in distress at any given time make clear that effective management is hardly a matter of simply following intuition. The technical areas of study in business schools are as rigorous as any on campus; the far greater challenge is learning the "softer" side of management. Listening actively, communicating clearly and persuasively, organizing complex projects, and overcoming gut emotional reactions are not second nature for everyone. But these skills can be learned through experience coupled with critical reflection—the primary motivation for using experiential, team-based projects. These projects emulate the world that every graduate will face, helping students recognize and modulate their instinctive responses to realize more successful outcomes.
Ultimately, there is nothing more rigorous and far-reaching in its impact than getting someone to become more reflective and thoughtful. And this is exactly what happens daily at every top business school.
All college graduates seek rewarding careers that will provide a reasonable level of material comfort. It’s a fool’s argument to claim that business students have hard-wired predispositions. As with any field, motivations for studying business vary widely. The vast majority of Kelley students chose business because they recognized the broad applicability of the knowledge and thought processes we develop. The same holds for the many students of the arts, humanities, and sciences who augment their majors with select courses at the business school.
At a more heartfelt level, if there is a common motivation for studying business, it’s the desire to make a difference. This is hardly unique to business students, but what is different is the vigor with which they become engaged in developing leadership skills. The business school culture, with its emphasis on career preparation and résumé development, is singular on campus. Students quickly understand that they are expected to contribute to the advancement of the school, to the university as a whole, and to the communities in which they will live. It is not unusual to find that business students are disproportionately represented in the leadership ranks of student government, civic engagement organizations, and sororities and fraternities. By senior year, business graduates have the poise, confidence, and "roll up the sleeves and get it done" mindset that are so highly sought-after by the nation’s leading companies and government agencies.
Due in part to their prevalence, business schools are fish bowls. It’s easy and intriguing to look at them from the outside and make less-than-favorable inferences about their value. But the mission of business education, and the driving energy among business students, is straightforward and compelling: to advance society by improving how well organizations large and small, for-profit and nonprofit, are run. These goals, and the young men and women who pursue them, have never been more relevant or important to our future.