Colleges Should Require Business 101

Matt Ragas

According to the latest jobs report, released last week by the Labor Department, the U.S. unemployment rate ticked up to 7.9 percent for January. More alarming was a report from Generation Opportunity, released the same day, placing the unemployment rate for those under age 30 at 11.5 percent, or nearly 50 percent higher than the national average.

While that number includes both college-educated and other young adults, it’s a discouraging figure for professors and students alike. We owe it to our students to give them the best opportunity to start their careers on solid ground. From my perch at a liberal-arts-oriented institution, it seems clear that our liberal-arts and social-science majors are missing out on something vital to their futures: Business 101.

I’m not suggesting that we prepare English and sociology majors to become hedge-fund managers or corporate raiders. We rightfully place a high value on the best components of a traditional liberal-arts education—interdisciplinary coursework, an emphasis on critical thinking and problem solving, and shaping students into socially aware citizens committed to the common good.

I’m proud of that mission and of how our students embrace that philosophy. And yet it’s not enough. All students should graduate with a basic understanding of business principles as well. It should be part of the curriculum, akin to “Introduction to Sociology” or “Kant and 19th-Century Philosophy.”

My mass-communications students, who are headed for careers as television producers, advertising designers, and public-relations professionals, should at least know what happens when expenses rise faster than revenues, or how supply and demand dictate the pricing of the products and services they’ll buy. Students who major in psychology, sociology, political science, history, music, or theater should know how and why interest rates affect what they pay on their credit cards or their ability, one day, to buy a house.

When I talk with employers representing public-relations firms, advertising agencies, and media companies, they increasingly indicate that they need graduates with basic business sense. Most liberal-arts majors will end up working for and with business people and organizations concerned with at least breaking even at the end of the day. Steve Jobs was a creative genius, but he also cared about sales.

Unfortunately, there are several roadblocks for a liberal-arts major trying to get more classroom exposure to business basics. Classes in business schools often fill up quickly, with priority given to business majors. And prerequisites often block students from taking electives in a business school. It takes courage for most liberal-arts majors to enroll in a business class; the last thing they need is to find out that the class is full, or that they don’t meet a prerequisite. They feel defeated before they begin.

Even the classes they could take aren’t ideal. Liberal-arts majors may find that the texts used in a marketing or finance class are too in-depth and don’t employ examples relevant to their fields of study. My students don’t need to know about mortgage-backed securities or what Ben Bernanke ate for breakfast.

We need new classes tailored to areas of the liberal arts: say, “Business Basics for the Social Sciences.” This would be similar to the approach taken in other disciplines, where new courses, like “Statistics for the Social Sciences,” have been designed for the needs of liberal-arts majors. Some colleges are already moving in this direction. Marquette University offers a “Business Foundations” class for students in its college of communication.

Many of my students show up with a fear of numbers. I demystify the math for them and show them that they don’t need to be math whizzes to get the core ideas. My goal is not to turn my students into the next Warren Buffett or Meg Whitman, but to give them every tool possible to succeed upon graduation—and not go broke.

Every time I see or hear the nation’s monthly unemployment report, I think of my students at this urban Midwestern institution. Many are first-generation college students working one or two part-time jobs on top of their full-time course load. They’re hard-working kids. Hardly a week goes by that I don’t read another story about the crushing student-loan debt that many of them juggle, even as tuition continues to climb. It’s enough to make me feel that I’m not doing enough as a professor to prepare them for life out in the wild.

According to Gallup, the economy remains the No. 1 issue in the country, followed by the lack of jobs. Chances are, those issues will top the list for a while. Whether today’s students aspire to work for a small start-up, a multinational corporation, a nongovernmental organization, or even a university, employers want graduates who have had at least some exposure to why budgets matter—including, of course, their own.

Matt Ragas is an assistant professor of public relations in the College of Communication at DePaul University. This article originally appeared in the current edition of  The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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