September 19, 2020

The Default Major: Skating Through B-School

PAUL M. MASON does not give his business students the same exams he gave 10 or 15 years ago. “Not many of them would pass,” he says.

Dr. Mason, who teaches economics at the University of North Florida, believes his students are just as intelligent as they’ve always been. But many of them don’t read their textbooks, or do much of anything else that their parents would have called studying. “We used to complain that K-12 schools didn’t hold students to high standards,” he says with a sigh. “And here we are doing the same thing ourselves.”

That might sound like a kids-these-days lament, but all evidence suggests that student disengagement is at its worst in Dr. Mason’s domain: undergraduate business education.

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 business majors had the weakest gains during the first two years of college on a national test of writing and reasoning skills. And when business students take the GMAT, the entry examination for M.B.A. programs, they score lower than students in every other major.

This is not a small corner of academe. The family of majors under the business umbrella — including finance, accounting, marketing, management and “general business” — accounts for just over 20 percent, or more than 325,000, of all bachelor’s degrees awarded annually in the United States, making it the most popular field of study.

Brand-name programs — the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Notre Dame Mendoza College of Business, and a few dozen others — are full of students pulling 70-hour weeks, if only to impress the elite finance and consulting firms they aspire to join. But get much below BusinessWeek’s top 50, and you’ll hear pervasive anxiety about student apathy, especially in “soft” fields like management and marketing, which account for the majority of business majors.

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 Dr. Khurana 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 finally, 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 St. John’s University, in Collegeville, Minn. “They need us to be cash cows.”

 

IN “Academically Adrift,” Dr. Arum and Dr. Roksa looked at the performance of students at 24 colleges and universities. At the beginning of freshman year and end of sophomore year, students in the study took the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a national essay test that assesses students’ writing and reasoning skills. During those first two years of college, business students’ scores improved less than any other group’s. Communication, education and social-work majors had slightly better gains; humanities, social science, and science and engineering students saw much stronger improvement.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=de151ced291d0cd9287fe224bc4d0ccd

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