Just Say No…to a Business Degree

Editor’s note: The author is a master teacher at the Acton Business School, a private MBA program in Austin, Texas, run by successful entrepreneurs.

Your son or daughter wants advice about which college major to pursue. You respond: What about a business degree? No, it is not as enriching as liberal arts or as rigorous as physics, but at least it would prepare your child for a rewarding career, right?

Logical, understandable—and dead wrong. If your child is interested in business, the worst thing you can do is encourage him or her to get a business degree—either undergraduate or MBA.

What standing do I have to say this? I am a successful entrepreneur who, for over twelve years taught at the graduate level at a major Texas public university. In other words, I’ve been inside the “belly of the beast” of higher education, observing business school classes, analyzing curriculum, and listening to professors in the faculty lounge in unguarded moments. In other words, I’ve seen parts of academia that parents, students, and donors never visit.

Yes, universities have some wonderful teachers, tenured and non-tenured, who care for their students despite perverse institutional incentives. These teachers are my friends and heroes—but they are far too few. There are even a few good business programs, but they are the rare exception. Looking in from the outside, students and parents have little chance of knowing what they are really like, because it is impossible to separate propaganda from fact.

So, what’s the problem with the vast majority of business schools today?

First, most of the tenured faculty who lead business schools couldn’t run a lemonade stand. They’d starve to death. At best, a few have interacted with real businesspeople while schmoozing for donations; most of their knowledge about business comes from being a retail consumer.

Second, the tenured faculty care most about discipline-based academic research. Like other academics, they are rewarded for writing papers for narrow academic journals—discussing issues most businesspeople would consider irrelevant, using methodologies that shouldn’t apply, and leading to conclusions that are as suspect as they are unimportant.

Third, much of the teaching is done by adjuncts, many of whom are paid $10 an hour or less. Courses tend to be based on textbooks that stress memorizing useless jargon or offer outdated academic theories about business. These are delivered to uninterested students in lectures that would be mind-numbing, if students bothered to come to class.

Finally, too many tenured faculty members hold a thinly disguised disdain toward business and business people. You have to listen closely, but the message is there, like the quiet but constant throb of Muzak: “Business is basically a dishonorable profession, fully of money-grubbing Neanderthals.”

To understand why they have this disdain, put yourself in the shoes of a tenured professor: “I’m smarter than the people who run businesses, but they have far more money. How can that be?” The conclusion: “Business people must be cheating or lucky or selling out their integrity.”

All of this results in a corrosive “pedagogy of arrogance” that serves no one. Tenured professors lecture about theories never tested in the trenches of business. Usable skills—like selling, making, and delivering real products or services or counting cold hard cash, or even writing a clear memo—are dismissed as beneath the dignity of learned scholars.

Do you think it’s better in MBA programs? Think again. If anything, the “pedagogy of arrogance” is turned up a notch, since many professors do everything possible to avoid undergraduates, leaving most of the instruction to poorly paid teaching assistants or adjuncts.

So what should you advise if your child has an entrepreneurial streak? Encourage her or him to pursue a passion, to study an area that inspires. Steer your child toward a basic degree in the liberal arts or a hard science. Your goal is to encourage clear thinking that eventually leads to thoughtful action.

A more radical idea is to bypass college altogether. Unthinkable? Stop and consider whether your response comes from a genuine concern about your child’s future or from your bragging rights with other parents. After all, Bill Gates, Michael Dell, and many other entrepreneurs do quite well without a sheepskin.

Whether your child chooses college or not, an apprenticeship will be key. At our school, Acton, we believe in finding a “calling” in business. In that calling you use your most precious gifts, doing something that brings you great joy and serving others to satisfy a deep burning need in the world. Help your child develop a talent that brings great joy; then look for opportunities for working alongside someone who can serve as a role model.

In the end, a calling is far more satisfying and fulfilling than a degree in business. Your child’s success depends a lot more on curiosity, character, and basic business skills than a pseudo-prestigious piece of paper hanging on the wall.