The Empty Core of Undergraduate Education

Business is by far the most popular undergraduate major. More students study business than language, literature, communication, journalism, biology, biomedical science, engineering, and engineering technologies—combined. That’s because the typical American undergraduate attends a mostly non-selective regional public university and is headed for a standard white-collar private-sector job. So they default into the major that matches their career trajectory. The problem, as David Glenn writes in an excellent new Chronicle article, is that—well, rather than tell you, I’ll just let David show:

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….

Scholars in the field point to three sources of trouble. First, as long ago as 1959 a Ford Foundation report warned that too many undergraduate business students chose their majors “by default.” Business programs also attract more than their share of students who approach college in purely instrumental terms: as a plausible path to a job, not out of curiosity about, say, Ronald Coase’s theory of the firm.

“Business education has come to be defined in the minds of students as a place for developing elite social networks and getting access to corporate recruiters,” says Rakesh Khurana, a professor at Harvard Business School who is a prominent critic of the field. It’s an attitude that he first saw in M.B.A. programs but has migrated, he says, to the undergraduate level.

Second, in management and marketing, no strong consensus has emerged about what students ought to learn or how they ought to learn it.

And third, with large student-faculty ratios and no lab equipment, business has historically been cheaper to operate than most departments. Cynics say many colleges are content.

“At the big public universities, the administrations need us to be credible, but I’m not sure that they need us to be very good,” says J. David Hunger, a scholar in residence in the management program at the College of St. Benedict and Saint John’s University, in Minnesota. “They need us to be cash cows….

One senior accounting major at Radford, who asked not to be named so as not to damage his job prospects, says he goes to class only to take tests or give presentations. “A lot of classes I’ve been exposed to, you just go to class and they do the PowerPoint from the book,” he says. “It just seems kind of pointless to go when (a) you’re probably not going to be paying much attention anyway, and (b) it would probably be worth more of your time just to sit with your book and read it.”

How much time does he spend reading textbooks?

“Well, this week I don’t have any tests, so probably zero,” he says. “Next week I’ll have a test, so maybe 10 hours then.”

He adds: “It seems like now, every take-home test you get, you can just go and Google. If the question is from a test bank, you can just type the text in, and somebody out there will have it and you can just use that.”

This is not senioritis, he says: This is the way all four years have been. In a typical day, “I just play sports, maybe go to the gym. Eat. Probably drink a little bit. Just kind of goof around all day.” He says his grade-point average is 3.3.

This situation persists because there are no incentives for colleges and students to act otherwise and the real losers here—workers who are denied access to certain kinds of jobs because they were unwilling or unable to bear the time and money cost of getting a garden-variety empty bachelor’s degree in business—aren’t organized into any kind of coherent or effective political constituency.

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