Many students are pushed too hard toward professional skills—at the cost of a broader education, says the Tepper School's Milton Cofield
To receive a business degree or a well-rounded education? That's the question many high school students are grappling with this admissions season. For many of them, the focus has shifted away from the liberal arts and toward the professional aspect of a degree, says Milton Cofield, executive director for undergraduate business administration at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business.
In Cofield's six years at CMU, this shift in applicants' thought processes has become more apparent—not a positive change in Cofield's view. However, Tepper is doing something to create well-rounded graduates.
Cofield, who earned an MBA at Wharton and a PhD. in chemistry from the University of Illinois, recently chatted with BusinessWeek.com reporter Julie Gordon about the professionalization of the business degree and other admissions-related issues. An edited transcript of their conversation follows:
Why is there a shift toward professionalization of the business degree?
I think it's because of the information that's out there. When you look at the amount of informational focus that's put on MBA programs in particular and now increasingly on undergraduate programs, this information focuses on their professional nature. I think that has drifted down to the undergraduate business programs and has the students conceiving of their experience in a similar way to what students who go in the MBA programs think about the objective that they have for their experience.
So are students looking at college as less of a broad, liberal-arts type of education then?
I think they absolutely are.
Is that a positive or negative thing?
I think that's actually a very negative thing. A student entering an MBA program has an undergraduate degree and a substantial amount of experience. Out of that, they would probably have a sense of the value of many different parts of their educational experience as related to their goals that they're setting for themselves. I think students in undergrad programs won't have that kind of focus. And they can overlook what the liberal-education components of an undergraduate experience is supposed to do.
What can Tepper—or other schools—do to combat that mentality?
What we're trying to do is be clear in our message about how we see our undergraduate educational experience. You have to work very hard to make sure that your students actually have a breadth of experience so they can develop a greater appreciation for, again, the value of that broad, liberal-education experience.
Then do high-school students think they're applying specifically to Tepper or to Carnegie Mellon in general?
I'm going to talk about Tepper, [but] the things I'm talking to you about are general for a certain elite group of undergraduate programs. I think all of the students who apply to these types of programs view themselves as applying directly to the business-school program more than they do to applying to the university at large.
But the admissions process is actually run through the undergraduate-admissions office and not through the college. So they know they're applying to the undergraduate-admissions office, but they're so directed by…this professionalization of what they think their undergraduate experience is supposed to be about, that they see themselves as directly applying to programs.
Also, here at Tepper, all students are admitted to programs, they aren't admitted as general freshmen in the freshman class. So when students apply to our university for admission, they're applying against an admission pool for that specific program.
Does a student have to declare a major upon application?
Yes, when you apply, you have to declare which program you're applying for. And again, I don't think that's probably different from some of the other schools.
I know Carnegie Mellon is strong in the technology and science fields. Are many business majors interested in those areas?
I think that's true. I think the students who apply to us recognize that we're a university that has a very strong reputation for analytical and quantitative disciplines. And whether they're applying to the Tepper School or engineering or [the School of Computer Science], they know that those are the really strong areas of our overall university.
Some schools, including Harvard and the University of Virginia, recently cut their early decisions programs (see BusinessWeek.com, 9/27/06, "Early Admissions: On Its Way Out"). What's your view of early decision?
I don't think it's a great idea. I talked about the professionalization of what students think about undergraduate education. Right now, young people applying to college are under an enormous amount of pressure. I think that early decision is sometimes [held out] as something that's beneficial to the student. But I think it's just another part of the enormity of the pressure that they really feel about these decisions that they have to make.
Would Carnegie Mellon consider dropping early decision?
I don't think I can comment on the university's perspective.
But doesn't early decision also alleviate pressure because students know early on where they'll be attending?
Some students know earlier. And it might be easier, in a certain way, for those students. But let's step back for a minute. If I take your suggestion, at heart, what I'm really saying is that a young person at 17 or 18 years old can put themselves in the position to choose an undergraduate educational experience from all of the varieties of potential experiences that are available to them. [That they can] make such a decision with so much clarity of thought that they know …they will, in essence, only apply to one school. I don't see where [in terms of] both education and experience that person is really in that position to make that kind of a judgment.
Why is there so much pressure nowadays? (See BusinessWeek.com, 10/3/06, "How to Buy Your Way Into College".)
There are several factors. One, the cost of education is very significant, whether it's private education or public education. And everyone who's involved in it is seeking some kind of return on their investment [see BusinessWeek.com,10/10/06 "Bonus Babies: Digging Into the Lifestyle"]. So there's an enormous amount of pressure from that.
Secondly, I think that not just business but all of undergraduate education is suffering from a sort of professionalization of what your undergraduate education is supposed to mean—as something that's defining of a majority of the outcomes of the rest of your life. And so…in essence, we're telling young people, "The decision you make will determine who you will be for the rest of your life." I think all of us would feel that to be an enormous amount of pressure.