Business Majors: The Kids Are Alright

Photograph by The Washington Post via Getty Images

Nearly 20 years ago, Dan Black was a wet-behind-the-ears accounting student at SUNY Binghamton. Today he oversees campus recruiting in the Americas for Ernst & Young, a company that will hire more than 3,800 U.S. college graduates and 3,000 interns this year—many of them business majors just like he used to be.

As one of the biggest employers of business students, Ernst & Young has a vested interest in the quality of students entering the nation’s B-schools and the quality of the education they receive there. Bloomberg Businessweek Associate Editor Louis Lavelle spoke with Black recently. This is an edited transcript of the conversation.

The College Board recently reported that college-bound high school seniors who intend to major in business have some of the lowest SAT scores around. Does that surprise you?

I was surprised to see that. We’ve been in the business of hiring primarily business majors for a very long time. I haven’t seen any kind of lapse or decrease in the quality of the candidates we hire at all. I would have expected them to be on a par with their peers.

Tell us about the quality of the business graduates you see coming out of the 200 college campuses where Ernst & Young recruits.

We’re data people here, and every several years we do a full analysis of all our entry-level hires. Those [performance] stats have been remarkably consistent for the 15 years I’ve had an oversight role for recruiting. The anecdotal feedback I get is that these students continue to be very impressive. They’re very well rounded. They’re much more diverse than they were 15 to 20 years ago. They have great cultural awareness. They’re great multitaskers and great at technology.  One area where we continue to see an opportunity for improvement is around communications. Part of that has to do with the environment they’ve grown up in. Everything is shorthand and texting and technology. At the end of the day that’s where we’d like to see some improvement.

Once they get to college, business students have been shown to study less and learn less than those in other majors—when they later take the GMAT for MBA admissions, they score worse than any other major. Does business have a reputation, fairly or not, as an easy major?

My experience is that business is not viewed as the path of least resistance. This is all relative, of course. If you were to compare business to pre-med or engineering, that might feel like a safer or less challenging route. But when you compare it to the liberal arts, I don’t get the sense that business is the easier way to go.

If that’s the case, then how do you explain those findings?

To suggest that business students are not as smart or not as talented ignores the possibility that the SAT is geared toward people who have a specific skill set. It’s entirely possible that students who intend to be business majors down the road have a specific skill set around numbers or data analytics that does not play well in a test that involves reading comprehension and other things that are not their particular cup of tea.

Is there anything to the idea that the business major attracts students who are less well-prepared for college simply because they  haven’t decided on a career path, and business offers numerous possibilities?

Business more and more feels like a very practical major to think about. When you look at the people who are getting the jobs out of school, business, finance, and accounting are always up in the top. As a parent or a student, if I’m looking at plunking down 20, 30, or 40 grand a year for a top education, I’d love to have a job waiting for me on the other end of that experience. There’s a practical side to that: People are saying, “Hey, this may be one of the best paths to employment.”

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