Business School: Where Education Dies

by David French

The Chronicle of Higher Education has posted a lengthy story on the failure of business schools to actually educate their students. Undergraduate business school students — among the most numerous of all college students — simply aren’t studying or learning:

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

These students are of course living down to the “standards” set by their professors. See, for example, the emphasis on group work:

What accounts for those gaps? The two sociologists point to sheer time on task. Gains on the CLA closely parallel the amount of time students reported spending on homework. Another explanation is the heavy prevalence of group assignments in business courses: The more time students spent studying in groups, the weaker their gains in the kinds of skills the test measures.

Group assignments are a staple of education in management and marketing. In dorm lounges and library basements around the country, small cells of 20-year-olds are analyzing why a company has succeeded or failed (Drexel University); team-writing 15-page digital marketing plans (James Madison University); or preparing 45-minute PowerPoint presentations on one of the three primary functions of management (Tulane University).

Group work is largely an academic joke, a process where the weaker members of the group rely almost exclusively on the stronger, more conscientious students to carry them all to the grade they want. (Of course, the same “weak rely on the strong” dynamic prevails in real-world group work as well.) Group work serves lazy students and professors quite well — the low-performing students can relax while their peers complete the task, and the professors have fewer papers or projects to grade.

While easy classes and group assignments may do little to further the students’ actual education, that’s not the point, is it? After all, the real purpose of many second-tier (and even some first-tier) public- and private-university business degrees is to provide the mandatory credential required by employers, who then do the actual, on-the-job training the position requires. Recent marketing, accounting, or management grads enter the workplace (with rare exceptions) as essentially glorified interns, and they’ll sink or swim based on their performance in a job they learn as they go. While’s there nothing inherently wrong with starting low and working your way up through determination, creativity, and discipline, why must these new employees spend four years and tens of thousands of dollars before they can start their real training?

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