What Is Wrong with Business Education

I recently finished reading a book about the state of business education in college. Given my experience teaching in business schools, I found it hard to disagree with what I read, such as these snippets:

When ranking academic performance across disciplines, business students are near the bottom…Too many students seek a business degree for economic vis-à-vis educational gain…Classes in business schools are too vocational…Business students need a sound grounding in liberal arts, not training for their first job.

Where did I read them? Academically Adrift?  Crisis on Campus?  Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education?  If you chose one of those books, you were off by over 50 years. The book in question is Higher Education for Business by Robert Gordon and James Howell, a lengthy study sponsored by the Ford Foundation in 1959 on the state of business education.

I was drawn to Gordon and Howell’s book because several recent volumes on business education have cited it. Current texts refer to the “landmark nature” of the Gordon and Howell’s work, noting that it was a call to arms—urging business schools to develop the minds that would lead the world. Gordon and Howell contended that business schools should not simply create back-office technocrats, which in their view business schools were doing. 

A quotation from the very first page of G&H reveals their expansionary hopes for business education:

The extraordinary advances in the application of science to modern life which have made possible the remarkable economic progress and vast improvement in human well-being during the present century have created a multitude of economic and social problems for the solution of which our business leaders must assume primary responsibility. Hence the task to which the collegiate schools of business have addressed themselves, that of training young men for the heavy responsibilities of the business leadership of the future, constitutes an educational problem of paramount importance.

Yes, it is of paramount importance to prepare young men (and women!) for the world of business. But how?  Gordon and Howell present the answer as a wrestling match among three goals:

1.     Presenting a broad education that covers “business in general”

2.     Providing a specialized education in a chosen function of business (such as accounting or finance)

3.     Preparing students for their first job after college.

Based on my experience in several business schools, present practice is to provide and promote (3)— preparation for almost any job—while offering specialized classes with (2) in mind, and from that to erroneously assume that goal (1)—giving a broad introduction to business—has been performed. This results in colleges doing a poor job of both job preparation and holistic business education. If colleges would just focus on a broad education, the other two goals would take care of themselves.

Back in the 1950s, Gordon and Howell agreed with my recommendation that business school should not be mere job-training. They were in favor of reducing functional business specialization to a few elective courses at the end of a general business major. They asserted that a broad-based coverage of business for all students is better real-world preparation than narrow pedagogy that focuses on the buzzwords of one business function. The former develops the mind to better prepare for future abstract challenges, while the latter is remedial credentialing.

That was, I believe, right in 1959 and is no less true today.  Aside from accounting, very few jobs fit into a neat little silo akin to the finance, marketing, or management majors offered in business schools.  

Professors and students are fooling themselves if they think that the classroom is the vocational training ground for business careers. The workforce consists of market researchers, financial analysts, retail managers, help-desk operators, and small business owners, to name a few; none of these professions aligns perfectly with the content coverage of the various majors in business schools, and many bright people can learn what they need to learn for these careers on the job, anyway.

The best way that business faculty (i.e,. academics who often have minimal business experience themselves) can utilize their intellectual capital is to have students read classic business writings (e.g., Smith, Keynes, and Friedman) and wrestle with difficult questions that cannot be answered with multiple-choice bubbles. For example, addressing the classic question, “Is the social responsibility of a business to earn a profit?” would give young adults practice in tackling future abstract challenges in the workplace. The real world has more than four answer choices, and there is no answer key. 

Business classes should be taught like liberal arts courses—good ones, that is. For example, most AACSB-accredited schools offer human resource management (HRM) courses. Some people question whether HRM is scholarly enough for higher ed and I’m sympathetic with that concern. But if we assume that HRM classes must stay, they should be taught appropriately.

That could be done through spurring thoughtful analyses. For example, a class could present the context that created the Fair Labor Standards Act in the 1930s. This law created a minimum wage, outlawed child labor, and mandated overtime pay. Faculty could ask students to write essays on whether that act at present does more harm than good. Such an exercise would help students understand how such legislation affects labor relations in modern times and thus—as future business owners—such students will be better prepared to manage the ever-changing relationship between industry and government. Unfortunately, the way HRM is often taught is just to have students repeat the different parts of a job description and memorize the difference between defined benefit and defined contribution retirement plans. They don’t need college courses to do that. They can buy Human Resources Kit for Dummies for under $20. 

It is true that some of the data in Gordon and Howell is 1959-specific; the popular industries for post-college employment tended to be manufacturing-related and the number of degrees granted were exponentially fewer than today. Otherwise, if Higher Education for Business were released today, readers would have no doubt that the authors are describing business education in the 21st century. The confusion about the goal of business education is the same today as over half a century ago.

The world of work has seen amazing innovations since 1959. We have email, smartphones, Skype job-interviews, telecommuting, electric buses, online bill-pay, flat organization structures, and Super Bowl advertising. Business schools have shiny new buildings but otherwise they are fundamentally the same. In fact, given the influx of underprepared students, the dumbing down of coursework, and the exponentially bloated tuition prices, business schools may actually be worse than in the 1950s.

That is not a recipe for long-term success. The higher education bubble cannot continue to inflate.  It is only a matter of time before better, cheaper educational alternatives become mainstream; this will leave colleges with a figurative warehouse full of mainframe computers to sell to customers who are seeking iPads.