In a down economy, students see business school as a safe bet


American University’s Kogod School of Business is part of the rise in applications to business school

Throughout middle and high school, Joanna Sobieski loved music, particularly singing, which she had done since the fourth grade. She planned to major in voice performance in college and go on to pursue a career in music. But when she arrived at American University for her freshman year, Sobieski decided to major in film.

“There is a larger market for film majors, even if it’s just a one-time job helping someone with video editing,” Sobieski said.

Yet film majors are not always guaranteed full-time employment, either. So to improve her job prospects, Sobieski chose to minor in management, a program run through the Kogod School of Business.

She is not alone. Many students majoring in communication at American choose to minor in business as a back-up plan. That’s among the reasons why applications to the business school have been steadily increasing since 2009, reaching a record high in 2013, according to Michelle Doyle, the assistant director of admissions for the school.

The business school enrollment spike at AU is part of a national trend in which college students are increasingly choosing to get a degree in business. According to a study from the National Center for Education Statistics, 358,000 business degrees were conferred in 2008, a 14 percent increase over the last decade. A business degree is now the most popular degree to pursue, with 21 percent of graduates majoring in this field, according to NCES.

The increase in applications does not necessarily mean that students have become more interested in business. Rather, they are drawn to what the degree represents: a stable future.

Many students who major in business decide to do so merely because they think it will ensure them a job right out of college, according to a 2009 Businessweek article.  And for students like Sobieski who have tried to balance their interests with a more stable career but still feel that their major could yield inconsistent results in the job market, a degree in business broadens their options and provides a safety net for them to fall back on.

John Fernandes, president of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, a group that seeks to improve management education worldwide, said that students are pursuing business because they are increasingly interested in job security. He cites the 2008 recession as the source of this interest.

“Any time the economy looks difficult, that means undergraduates will look towards a degree that they can more quickly apply to a job,” Fernandes told Businessweek.  “And students see business as the major with the greatest likelihood of getting one.”

Yet business school may not be the best answer for students seeking a lucrative job. Lynn O’ Shaugnessy, who blogs about higher education, recently wrote that according to workplace surveys, employers want students who can think and communicate proficiently.  These are skills that can be acquired without receiving a business major.

Furthermore, a recent study from the National Survey of Student Engagement concluded that business students universally spent less time preparing for their classes than students in other fields.  This data reinforces the idea that the business school formula can leave students lacking the qualities that employers truly look for in job candidates.

Back at AU, former business school career counselor Felicia Parks is aware that despite all the research, the “safe” business school mentality still thrives.

“There is definitely an assumption that there are better opportunities for people with a major in accounting or finance,” Park said.

Park’s message to high school students: “Ultimately, your career is what you make of it.  The most important thing is to show initiative in whatever you do and make sure you enjoy your major and eventually, your job.”