How Minor Is a Business Major?

In the eyes of administrators at many elite universities, an undergraduate whose sights are set on an eventual MBA should think twice about majoring in business. Instead, students should consider a broader degree in the sciences or liberal arts. In fact, schools such as Harvard, Dartmouth, and Columbia don't even offer a major in undergraduate business. Still, many students perceive the undergraduate business major as the necessary first step on the road to their MBA.

Of the nearly 22,000 undergrad business students who responded to the BusinessWeek survey, 48% said they plan on getting an MBA in the next five years. Paul Danos, dean of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, is one who believes the undergraduate business degree is not necessary for an MBA. Recently, Danos talked to BusinessWeek reporter Geoff Gloeckler about this topic. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

If a student wants to enroll in a top MBA program, does he or she need to have an undergraduate business degree?

No. In our case, 87% of the students don't have business degrees, so obviously it's not necessary. MBA programs aren't designed for people who have a lot of formal business training. This doesn't mean that it hurts you. The only way it would hurt you is if you are weak in ordinary skills like language or history, you aren't articulate, or you can't write. We want our students to be broadly educated.

Are there limits to the number of business majors who are admitted?

We put no limits on the number of business students we admit. It's been pretty consistent for the past few years, running between 10% and 15%.

Why do you think that number is so low?

If you name the top 20 universities, I'd say that two-thirds of them don't have business undergrads. And the ones that do have pretty limited, small programs. The only one that has a giant program is Wharton. Even Michigan has a very small undergraduate BBA.

What should the roadmap to the MBA look like?

It is not entirely necessary to go to the most prestigious university, but it is important that you do really well in the courses that you take. You've got to keep your options open. It would be a mistake not to take a single quantitative course. In all of the MBA programs, including Tuck's, you've got to be decent in quantitative skills. Then, you probably need to take basic economics and statistics. If you don't, you're going to come to a business school like Tuck or Stanford and not be able to pass the class, or even be admitted, because your quant GMAT scores will be too low.

Do you think that students who have an undergraduate business degree have an advantage when it comes to acclimating to the working world?

I don't think it makes that much difference. Everyone has at least a little business experience. They've picked up basic accounting just through being around it so much and from going to training programs. Finance seems to be the real wall, and people who have an undergraduate [business] degree might feel a little more comfortable, but I don't think it makes any difference in the end.

People recruiting MBAs are hiring people to be great managers and leaders. They want them to have a certain amount of depth, but you can certainly get that in an MBA program. You don't have to have that going in [to a graduate business program].

And business is really the only discipline where a student even has the option of gaining experience before graduate school, right?

Exactly. We don't have an undergraduate law degree, we just have the law degree. We don't have undergraduate medicine, we just have a medical degree. In those fields we don't double up this way. The average BBA curriculum and the average MBA curriculum aren't that different. It's the amount of experience students are bringing to the table that is different.

People who go for the MBA often do so because they know that the BBA alone does not signal that they can do the really high-end stuff, and they want to be in the high end of management. The very best of the BBAs can get the kind of jobs that go all the way, but often they have to gear back up because it didn't really take as a youngster. If you're taking cost accounting at 19, what are you thinking about? Do you really have the context for such a subject?

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