Many students come to me with the intention of studying business as undergraduates. If that’s your dream, I will bend over backwards to help you make it a reality.
But it’s time for me to make a confession: I find the idea of studying business as an undergraduate a little uninspiring, and I’m not the only one. Indeed, not mincing words, bestselling author and admissions expert Jeff Selingo considers it a “waste of time and money.” The title of Selingo’s article is, in my opinion, more of a clickbait provocation than anything else, but the article itself does point to compelling factors that should give students pause before they launch into an undergraduate business degree, and in this post, I’d like to do the same.
Don’t get me wrong, though: I don’t find business uninspiring. On the contrary, being part of a thriving business or even founding and running one of your own can be one of the most personally fulfilling professional adventures one can have. It also isn’t my job (or ever my objective) to persuade students to study what I happen to find interesting—indeed my opinions are quite irrelevant to what my students study and entirely immaterial in my efforts to help them find a great university where they will thrive. If you want to major in business, don’t worry: I’ll help you do just that.
But before you do, hear me out.
Part of my job is to help ensure that students find their way to a college and a course of study that motivates and inspires them, and when they tell me they want to get an undergraduate business degree, it often appears to be for the wrong reasons.
I have the sense that these students tend to believe that an undergraduate degree in business equals a job in business which, in turn, equals wealth. There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to make money. Sure, perhaps as a society we go a little too far in equating net worth with success. The fact is, though, that whether or not money can buy happiness (and the jury is still out in psychology circles—perhaps the subject of a future blog post), we all need it. Yet the assumption that an undergraduate business degree will lead to high earnings merits examination.
Let us begin this examination by considering less scientific, more anecdotal evidence to support this idea.
For one, it’s interesting to note that only three colleges ranked in the US News and World Reports top twelve have undergraduate business majors, yet these are the schools where consulting firms and investment banks recruit. These firms are clearly not concerned that the students they are recruiting will lack the skills necessary to be successful employees.
For another, try this exercise: put together a list of business-people that inspire you, and look each one up on Wikipedia. What did they study in college? Here is a list that I put together of some of the United States’ most influential billionaires and what they studied:
- Steve Jobs, before dropping out of college, studied Shakespeare, Dance, and Calligraphy (the latter of which he has cited as inspirational in later design decisions for Mac computers).
- Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, studied Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.
- Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, studied Psychology and Computer Science.
- Elon Musk, owner of Tesla, SpaceX, and X (formerly Twitter) studied Physics and Economics.
- Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, studied Math and Pre-Law.
- Oprah Winfrey studied Communication.
- Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, studied Computer Science.
Perhaps you’ve already noticed that not a single person on this list majored in business as an undergraduate. You may have also noticed that there is a noticeable preponderance of STEM fields here, though as it turns out, while a STEM major likely means high earnings in your first job, down the line, STEM majors fall behind. It’s also worth noting that almost everyone on the list above rode the wave of the early internet to success by being among the first to offer a service of their kind. That wave is long over, but that does not mean that more will not arrive. And who will be best poised to catch the wave? (I’ll give you a hint: it’s not business majors.)
As the article above points out, more technical, career-focused skills that one has the opportunity to learn in college (say, coding in Python) can change—and become obsolete—quickly. Yet the skills one learns in a liberal arts degree—critical thinking, nuanced communication and analysis, and problem solving, among others—are not only highly valued by employers, they are also widely applicable to all sorts of professions. It’s true that you won’t find an in-depth, scholarly understanding of Melville in most corporate job descriptions, but the fact that you’ve taken on something as weighty, profound, and complex as Moby Dick is impressive, classy, and demonstrates a second-to-none analytical ability. While soft skills may be more difficult to map to required qualifications, the operation will be easy for any who have put in the work to develop them. And of course (again, as the article points out) they never expire.
There’s one additional point that I feel it is important to make. A liberal arts degree (whether in humanities, social sciences, or STEM; whether in the US, in the UK or in the Netherlands) will nourish your sensibilities like no other. The result of this sustained cognitive and spiritual nutrition will be an unmatched ability to see and connect in ways that others cannot. And it is this agility in tapping into inspiration that creates the kinds of visionaries whose insights (to borrow from Steve Jobs) are revolutionary and not just evolutionary. If you dream of being an entrepreneur, nothing could be more important.
Add to all of this the relative prestige and increased earnings potential that an MBA can confer (and in only a year or two), and you’ll have the best of both worlds.
Of course, studying business as an undergraduate may be the right call for you. If entering the workforce immediately after graduation and beginning to earn money is a priority for you, then it might be the right path for you. There’s nothing wrong with that. But before you commit, consider your long game.