Not by Default: Doing Business As Liberal Arts Majors

Jerry Johnson

By: Jerry Johnson - Executive Director of the Center for Business Preparation, Hanover College

Category: Education

Concern that business is the "default" major for too many college students is escalating. In my experience hiring individuals for entry level positions at banks in Indianapolis and elsewhere and overseeing a business program at a small liberal arts college, I’ve encountered numerous students who either backed into business as a "safe" major or were nudged toward it by parents concerned about post-college employment.

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The notion is that undergraduates must choose between a liberal arts education—one that offers breadth, depth, and a set of skills valued by employers—and a business education that may sacrifice those benefits in favor of a supposedly more direct route to a well-paying job.

This basic dichotomy is false, ignoring the important role liberal arts education plays in career preparation. Influential management consultant Peter Drucker believed that all managers should be educated in the humanities and social sciences, and even taught that management, itself, is a liberal art.

That said, business is the most popular major for college graduates in America, comprising nearly 25 percent of bachelor’s degrees in recent years. Yet the 2011 National Survey of Student Engagement found students majoring in business spent less time preparing for class than students in any other field. In my experience, it’s difficult to get students (and employees) to engage in something they don’t really care about.

In “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” in the 2011 Chronicle of Higher Education, the authors found that business majors’ gains in writing and reasoning skills trailed those of their peers majoring in other fields, and their scores on the entry exam for MBA programs were lower than students in every other major.

Lest we play “blame the students” here, let’s recognize that business curriculum is often part of the problem. Courses long on theory and short on applications, on practical problem-solving, and on experiential opportunities often invite passivity and disengagement. In “Are Business Students Learning what Employers Need,” published in 2010 in Business Horizons, the authors concluded that “after decades of business research, there appears to remain a divide between the training provided at some business schools and the needs of business jobs.”

In addition, business programs that fail to provide either explicit job preparation or career placement beyond college career centers result in disappointment for students expecting that, simply by majoring in business, a rewarding and fulfilling job will automatically follow.

Many liberal arts students who loved their academic careers also graduate with little idea of how to turn their passion into a fulfilling career and few job-search skills with which to do it.

No matter the field of study, students shouldn’t be forced to choose between practical preparation for their first jobs and broad preparation for their lives.

Toward this end, in 2003, Hanover College abolished its business major and replaced it with the Business Scholars Program. Students who complete program requirements now graduate as Business Scholars. But they also graduate as Spanish or art history or economics majors (or even English, which was my major in 1969) with a strong underpinning in liberal arts studies. Business Scholars are genuinely engaged in their major area of study, a liberal arts curriculum and their business requirements. And parents are comforted to know that that their children are preparing for future employment.

The program now includes a much larger proportion (20 percent) of the student body than the traditional Business major that it replaced. Most majors at the college are represented in the program, and Business Scholars constitute many of Hanover’s top academic achievers and student leaders.

This is just one option.

Neither a traditional liberal arts major nor a typical business major offers all the elements needed for immediate, sustained success in business. But a liberal arts education provides important benefits that a business major cannot match. As the Academically Adrift article states, employers “want to hire 22-year-olds who can write coherently, think creatively and analyze quantitative data . . . .” Those abilities are best developed through true liberal education. But that liberal education must be bolstered by practical, real-world experience and training in how to succeed in business.

Indiana native Gerald R. Johnson, Jr., was a leader in the banking industry in Grand Rapids, MI, for more than 30 years and co-founded Mercantile Bank Corporation in 1997. He was named Executive Director of the Business Scholars Program at Hanover College in Hanover, IN, in 2009. Johnson earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Hanover College in 1969.

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