Think Twice Before Pursuing a Business B.A.

07/12/2017 05:07 pm ET Updated Jul 18, 2017
Morgan Stanley Ticker, New York City
Jiahui Huang, Flickr
Morgan Stanley Ticker, New York City

In the classic 2014 treatise on economics The Lego Movie, the Lego universe is ruled by a fastidious autocrat named President Business. His name is as ironic as it is prescient. For all the no-nonsense competency that his name would imply, President Business is narrow-minded, ill-tempered, selfish, unfashionable, and — worst of all — no fun.

In a story that cleverly explores themes of conformity and individuality, creativity and logic, and other building blocks of human society, President Business stands out as the one true villain. He rules with a plastic fist, dictating the placement of blocks and threatening rebels with doses of Super Glue. If only characters like him were as unreal as Unikitty is.

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The trouble with President Business is that he’s neither entirely fictional nor unique — at least his attitude isn’t. Among the dozens of majors that American colleges offer, more students these days are studying business than any other subject. Comprising 20 percent of today’s student body, undergraduate business majors outnumber their two nearest rivals, health/medical science and social sciences/history, by a factor of nearly two each.

The vast majority of these students surely don’t aspire to be evil dictators or corporate raiders. The study of business has plenty of pragmatic, intellectual, and, yes, financial value for those of more temperate ambitions. But that doesn’t necessarily make it practical – certainly not for all of the undergraduates currently flocking to it.

In my years as a college counselor, the percentage of my students who wish to major in business has roughly paralleled that of undergrads generally. I have supported them wholeheartedly and will continue to do so. Many have gotten into highly selective programs and gone on to great careers (just as they would have if they’d majored in something else), and I’m proud of their work.

Part of me, though, laments that anyone in the prime of his or her youth would harbor such quotidian desires as those of drawing regular paychecks and rising up the levels of middle management. Whatever happened to studying the mysteries of the universe or plumbing the depths of the human soul? Whatever happened to tending bar in Bushwick, writing free-verse poetry, joining a whaling crew, backpacking around the Eastern Bloc, subsisting on ramen, and sticking it to The Man? (Or whatever kids do these days when they’re not reading the Wall Street Journal.)

When I’m feeling less cynical, I think about the real consequences of a business degree. Many students consider it a catapult to a good career and a practical investment of four years’ worth of tuition. But is it really?

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Many students view business in the abstract. They say they want to do business as if they’re aspiring athletes who want to do “sports.” Well, there are a lot of sports out there: team sports and individual sports; sports for tall people and sports for short people; sports for the agile and sports for the strong; sports for people who throw and sports for people who jump. These days, there are even sports for people who play video games.

So, applicants have to ask themselves what game they’re playing and why. Accounting or strategy? Marketing or operations? Finance or management? More importantly, they have to ask themselves whether that game is actually business — or whether there’s some other goal and some other, better path to get there.

As a subject, “business” just refers to the set of considerations and knowledge required to help firms fulfill their missions in financially solvent ways. If a business major intends to work in “business,” whatever that might mean, he or she is implicitly committing to a certain body of knowledge and a particular way of thinking not just for four years but in fact for the rest of their lives — that can be as limiting as it is empowering. “Business” means different things for different companies, different people, and different eras.

Companies design automobiles, launch missiles, and polish teakettles. They heal patients, bake donuts, and genetically engineer seeds. They make movies and publish textbooks. They build houses and make loans. They program apps and design hardware. Some contribute to society, others leach off of it. Some earn profits, some go bankrupt.

Each of these activities involves business. These firms hire people with business skills. These companies are businesses, and they operate according to business principles. But “business” isn’t what they do. And “business” has nothing to do with many, if not most, of the jobs that companies offer.

For the non-corporate types, I’ve encountered many students who, probably dazzled by the tech wunderkinds of Silicon Valley, want to be “entrepreneurs.” Entrepreneurs of what? That’s the question.

“Entrepreneur" (or its haughty new synonym “founder”) shouldn’t be a title to be desired. It should be a fervor to be discovered, in the course of getting to know yourself and the world. It should be a position to be earned, by virtue of hard work, esteem, and, especially, imagination. The world only needs another entrepreneur if he or she has something new to offer.

As everyone from Thomas Edison to Elon Musk will tell you, ideas must come first. That’s how you end up with Virgin Atlantic and not, say, Trump Shuttle. That’s why entrepreneurs are, by definition, idiosyncratic. How idiosyncratic can you be if you study the same accounting, marketing, finance, and human resources classes as everyone else does?

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As journalist George Anders, an eloquent defender of the humanities, writes in the Wall Street Journal, “four of the top five traits [that hiring managers seek in candidates] were hallmarks of a traditional liberal-arts education: teamwork, clear writing, problem-solving aptitude and strong oral communications. Mindful of their longer-term needs, some employers end up hiring humanities major and social-science graduates, even if such majors aren’t explicitly singled out when recruiting.”

That’s because even typical “business” jobs are new and changing. Just as the field of smartphone app development didn’t exist ten years ago, neither did the job of analyst of the smartphone app industry nor marketing director for smartphone app companies. In these cases, intelligent people have had to figure it out. “Soft skills” are just as important, if not more so, than the “hard skills.” That’s why people’s careers rarely correspond with the majors they study (play around with these graphs to see the data).

Indeed, in all but the most staid professions, success relies as much on resourcefulness, creativity, curiosity, logic, diligence, maturity, and relationships as it does on expertise. For students who are creative, insightful, and open-minded enough to figure out how to make the most of their education, every school is business school. And, for those students, every business function is also an intellectual challenge. Whatever the company or the job, the ability to discern and process unfamiliar information and to respond to novelty matters as much, if not more, than the ability to follow a protocol and apply skills they’ve been taught.

Companies hire social science majors to analyze data and assess how it relates to the real world and not some idealized economic fantasy. They hire anthropologists to understand customers and markets. They hire English majors who can analyze, communicate, and embrace novel situations. They hire history majors who pay attention to cause and effect and to long-term patterns. They hire philosophy majors to consider different perspectives on an opportunity – and to steer companies away from ethical quagmires. Alternatively, companies might not hire any of these people for explicit reasons. They simply know that intellectual diversity makes for a stronger workforce.

Finally, let’s consider the fundamental principle of economics: supply and demand.

First, all the applicants professing their interest in business have a pretty hard time distinguishing themselves from their fellow applicants. In other words, prospective business majors effectively face lower admission rates.

Once they’re admitted, if more students are studying business than any other subject, then companies are looking at a lot of resumes that look awfully similar to each other. An oversupply of business majors means disappointment for many of them. An applicant is better off being a religion major with an interesting story than a business major who’s not in the top half – or, in some cases – the top 10 percent of his class.

That’s why, according to recently analyzed data from the American Community Survey, a full 20 percent of business majors — more than any other major — are currently unemployed. That’s more than the next least-employed major by a factor of two.

Conversely, roughly 30 percent of the graduating classes of Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale go into consulting, banking, finance, or other business-related field. And there’s not a single business major in the bunch. How do I know that? Easy: none of those schools offers an undergraduate business major.

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I am not saying that all undergrad applicants should shy away from business. I’m saying they should be circumspect. The decision to major in business should entail no less soul-searching than the decision to major in linguistics, chemistry, anthropology, or anything else. Like an investor poring over an annual report, applicants should carefully analyze both their own ambitions and the academic programs, business or otherwise, that they’re considering.

But many would-be business students apply by default. They vaguely equate the study of business with an eventual job offer. But they haven’t given themselves the chance to develop true passions, figuring that business degrees will help them get jobs. Many of these students have been let down by their high schools’ guidance offices (or where there is no guidance office) or, perhaps, are unaware of the dazzling array of majors, both practical and esoteric, that they could study.

Other applicants are wannabe Gordon Gekkos or Martin Shkrelis, who see the study of business as a path to wealth and pomposity. Many of these students will be disappointed as they tighten their double Windsor knots. These are the ones colleges want to avoid; colleges do not want to admit students who simply want to enrich themselves. (That goal can lead to some pretty dark places.)

Then, of course, there are true virtuosos — the aspiring financiers who read stock market charts the way other kids read baseball box scores; and the aspiring entrepreneurs who not only have great business ideas but who have also started pursuing them. Maybe a business major is right for them — more power to them.

So, here’s a simple thought experiment for any high schooler who’s considering studying business: Imagine what you’d study if you couldn’t study business: no marketing, no human resources, no finance, no finance-disguised-as-economics. Take a good look at the course catalog of your prospective colleges and get excited about something else. Consider the untold volumes of knowledge coursing through its pages. Imagine the thrill of discovering an inspiring literary character, a scientific wonder, a heartbreaking historical event, or insights into an unfamiliar culture. That “something else” might not only give you a better chance of getting in — it also might give you a better education, a more interesting career, and a happier, more intellectually rich life.

None of this is to denigrate the complexity, rigor, or importance of business concepts. Quite the opposite: business, academically and professionally, can be fascinating, sophisticated, and worthwhile. They are potentially powerful tools that can be used for good and evil alike. That’s precisely why the study of business shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Life is long and the world is unpredictable. There are plenty of years to learn business, be it on the job or through an MBA, once youthful whimsy has truly faded. But there are precious few years to learn any of the other wonders that inhabit the vast universe of academia. By plunging directly into business, permanently forsaking all other studies and avocations, you’ may never know what you’re missing.

No matter what you study, you may yet grow up to be president. May you bring some wisdom to the job, and may you have some fun along the way.

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