Even at the age of 17, when college brochures began filling her mailbox, Maggie Hsu knew she wanted an MBA. Conventional wisdom told Hsu she should major in business. But after speaking with her family and touring campuses, she made an unconventional decision and enrolled at Harvard University -- as a biology major. A business degree would have put her on the fast track to a job in banking or finance, but her interests lay elsewhere. "There's only so much you can learn studying accounting," Hsu says.
In the eyes of administrators at many elite universities, Hsu made the right move. An undergraduate business degree makes sense for students intent on launching a business career immediately. But for a student with sights set on an MBA, a degree in the sciences or liberal arts may be more valuable. In fact, colleges such as Harvard, Dartmouth, and Columbia don't even offer an undergraduate major in business for just that reason. Yet many students think a business major is the necessary first step on the road to an MBA. Of the nearly 22,000 business majors who responded to the BusinessWeek survey, 48% said they planned to get an MBA within five years. Time for a reality check: Only 19% of students at BusinessWeek's Top 10 MBA programs have a bachelor's degree in business.
Once a technical degree like law or medicine that students got right after college, the MBA morphed into something new 20 years ago when schools began requiring applicants to have extensive work experience. With that change, the MBA began focusing on soft skills such as communication and leadership in addition to business basics, making the undergraduate degree an attractive shortcut into the business world. But it left many without the more rounded education necessary for business success. "[Companies] want to be sure that a potential hire can have conversations on subjects other than finance," says Meredith Daw, associate director for employer relations at the University of Chicago.
Less is More
Another problem with using the undergraduate business degree as a stepping stone to the MBA is that it duplicates much of what students will encounter in grad school. Many classes students take as undergraduates, such as economics, accounting, and statistics, are also required for the master's. Some MBA programs allow students who have already taken these to substitute with electives. But few students do, believing they'll miss out on all-important networking. Explains Paul Danos, dean of Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business: "MBA programs aren't designed for people who have a lot of formal business training."
Many "eventual MBAs" major in business in part because they believe it will guarantee them a job at graduation. But a few business courses would work just as well. Plenty of business majors at top schools, from 50% to 90%, have job offers by graduation. But consider the alternative. At Northwestern University, one school official estimates that 80% of students enrolled in one business-focused minor go straight into business positions. Says Mark Witte, director of Northwestern's undergraduate economics program: "Students overweigh what they think a major will do for them."
So if you're looking for a job in accounting or marketing, an undergraduate business degree will get you where you want to be. But if you aspire to get an MBA, consider a path that includes some humanities, a smattering of economics, and a little patience. "If a child of mine wanted to be a business leader someday," Danos says, "there's absolutely no doubt this is the advice I would give." It may seem circuitous, but give it time and you'll come out ahead.
By Geoff Gloeckler