By Grant Senter
There is a raging debate going on in higher education about the status of students. As a student, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to determine if university administrators view students as customers, products, or simply none of the above.
Are we customers, getting our way in the world of higher education, or are we students, who are selected, groomed, trained and sent out into the world, flying off the conveyor belt with a degree in hand?
Kenneth Freeman, dean of Boston University’s School of Management, thinks that to build a better business school, you should consider the student as a customer. If Freeman considers students customers, that subsequently means business schools and their faculty must become marketers, dramatically shifting an entire business school’s strategy.
Segments of higher education have taken Freeman’s viewpoint that students are customers and in the process, have turned the very nature of higher education into a marketing machine.
One of the interesting repercussions of a strategy that views students as customer is the specialization of majors — majors created in an attempt to meet the needs of niche markets.
Peter Cappelli, in an article for the Wall Street Journal, touched on the danger of specialization, saying that “focusing on a very specific field also means that you miss out on courses that might broaden your abilities.”
You’ll see majors such as financial planning, real estate, public administration, sports sponsorship and sales and my favorite, media business, across Baylor’s business school. These majors look great on a brochure; they feature shiny classrooms, bold-font-laden promises and are sometimes masked with illusions of prosperity and success, but choosing one of these majors is often choosing to play the game of career Russian roulette. When you dig deeper, you discover the job market can be limited for these majors. They are often not high paying and most of the students who choose a specialized major run the high risk of graduating underemployed or unemployed.
So why do it? Specialized majors are the result of a student as a consumer mindset, a mindset that is now a strategy used by business schools to gain a “competitive advantage” in the higher education landscape.
Sadly, the strategy of treating students like consumers and having specialized majors is a strategic mishap. The aforementioned strategy hurts not undergraduate business students as a whole, but the university itself.
Specialized majors are an indication of a problem as they often serve as a barometer for the resources, attention, and care that is put into a universities core set of majors (finance, marketing, management, accounting, etc.).
The lack of attention given to some of the core majors might explain why only 58 percent of Baylor business students graduate with a job offer. Less than 50 percent having accepted a job upon graduation, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.
For those counting at home, that’s over half of the business school walking out of Baylor without a job.
If you begin to analyze some of Hankamer’s biggest competitors, it’s interesting to note that TCU, SMU, and the University of Texas offer 11 or fewer majors in their business schools, which turned out to be fairly normal after the research was conducted. What isn’t normal is Baylor’s business school currently offers 24 majors. Twenty-four!
In fact, out of the 65 colleges that ranked ahead of Baylor according to the Bloomberg Businessweek 2013 rankings, only one school offered more than 12 majors: UPenn. The almighty Quakers offer 21 while Baylor takes the prize, offering 24 majors. Hankamer offers double the number of majors found at 64 of the 65 top business schools.
A good portion of Baylor’s business majors offer some degree of specialization or fall into a category that one could determine as untraditional.
The additional majors being offered mean more time, money and resources must be put into these programs to ensure their success.
In an age where universities work with limited budgets, you run the possibility of weakening the core set of majors and its students. By offering a lot of majors, you turn your school into a buffet or cafeteria style of education.
This style of education hurts the core major set and has a negative impact on job placement rates. As previously stated, only 58 percent of graduating Baylor business students have job offers compared to at or above 85 percent for TCU, SMU, and Texas. Large corporations such as IBM, GE, Disney and Salesforce.com are looking to recruit the best and brightest in large batches.
When your students are spread across 24 majors, those large batches are hard to come by.
A visit to a campus for a company should look like a trip to Sam’s Club, not a visit to your local Valero. Companies come to campus looking to buy in bulk.
Nine times out of 10, companies will not be investing money to travel to a school to recruit from a limited pool of, say, 20 students with a specialized skill set for a niche industry.
However, on the flip side of things, if a major is able to establish multiple corporate partnerships to recruit from the program, you have hit the jackpot. A jackpot that has been hit by the Professional Selling program, which boasts 100 percent job placement and a myriad of corporate partnerships.
The downside is that if you can’t supply enough opportunities for jobs, it is easy for students in these majors to fall through the cracks where they often end up struggling to find a job because of a specialized curriculum. It’s simply a roll of the dice.
So, as deans and department heads across the country scramble to throw together unique and trailblazing major programs, the student ends up paying the price.
When it comes time to get a good job with a great company and walk out of college in a position to pay off your student debt, the student as a consumer strategy is a failing one.
Grant Senter is a senior professional selling major from San Antonio. He is a guest columnist for The Lariat.