Monday, April 5, 2010

"Business Education": Advice to Aspiring Undergraduates

Newsweek is noting the declining enrollment in liberal arts program at the mid- and lower-tier colleges around the US, in the midst of this recession. Students are majoring in more "marketable" fields to prepare for a job afterwards.

Well, that sounds like a nice story, but it makes you wonder about all of those alumnis: How did they get their own jobs back in the day? Were companies just not paying attention?

Anyway, the author notes that the students were switching from traditional BA fields into Bachelor of Science fields or business. This seems like a bogus trend, as Jack Shaeffer of Slate would say. Students have been flocking to the business majors for years. Most people at these colleges know that the arts are not business. That schools are cutting the arts programs are more the result of a declining endowment, rather than a new found trend. Schools are confronting the reality that they have to cut costs, such as the relatively expensive arts programs.

As I previously wrote about the service academies, the Bachelor of Science program, for non-science/engineering fields, are inadequately rigorous for the scientific theories we employ. The BS, with its shallow calculus and science requirements, give the students the illusion that the world is deterministic and Newtonian, whereas science and engineering have moved past deterministic calculus and into differential equations. The real world is full of equations that we cannot solve explicitly, but only approximate with computers.

So in general the BS program does not give its students a good appreciation of the complex world we live in. Unless we step up the requirements of the BS program with at least 2 more classes inlcuding differential equations.

That gets to another problem in the American college education, the inadequate math skills of the American students. The calculator is not a substitute for arithematic skills, which builds the foundation for higher level math skills. But I probably should save that for another day.

We also have this expanding corps of business undergraduates. Personally, I think business undergraduates are not getting their money's worth, except for the accounting majors. Business programs attempt to treat all businesses the same, that there are universal expertise you can apply to all industries. That theory of universal expertise is not universally accepted; just witness all those consultants who specialize in particular industries. If a generalist consultant could serve all industries, there would not be a market for all these specialist consultants.

This is partially related to the Generalist vs Specialist debate, whether generalists' universal truths are more useful than the nuanced knowledge of the specialists. For the business students, their problem is that they have no grounding for this amorphous universal principles they are learning. For a program that's supposed to be real-world skills, the students are ironically learning theories without real-world experience or skills to ground the application. Students end up practicing the skill of salesmanship: most business plans end up focusing on retail, selling a product mano-a-mano.

I guess that's kind of fair, as Americans are supposed to be the best salesmen, that their business students end up practicing sales skills.

A revolution in the business undergraduate program would make the business program a double-major, that the student has to major in a field outside of the business school. For example, marketing students should double major in visual art or psychology. Management could major in history or economics. They could even major in the sciences or engineering, if they feel up to it. That second major will give students some in-depth insight to back up the broad overview they are learning.

The business students might complain that is too much work. [As in they shouldn't work hard?] My answer is, if they are going to work in the retail world, as many Americans do, do they really need that business degree right now? Why is it that a high school education has not prepared them to manage that first level of business operations? It is not like business math teaches a subject beyond Algebra 2. Writing a business plan is a college class, but does it require a college graduate to write the plan?

That segues into the next subject: jobs and college education. College is an inefficient way to figure out what you should be doing. It is expensive. A full-time student is incapable of working above subsistence level, and he is piling on debt on top of that. In America, it is easy to work part-time to be self-sustaining [at least before the recession.] Once you take care of food and shelter, you can spend the rest of your day figuring out what you want to do. At least you're not being a burden on society by frittering away financial aid dollars.

The subject of future jobs can take up a whole book, so I will elaborate later. However, there are three key trends you need to pay attention to. First, the US Dollar will depreciate quickly in the near future, relative to other currencies. As the world becomes more multi-polar, other currencies will replace the US Dollar as the reserve currency. Not to mention the fiscal health of the US, although the rest of the world is not much better. Secondly, distributed manufacturing will be more wide-spread, pushed downstream to the retail level. Like food preparation, the other physical retail sectors will take on more manufacturing at the store level to be more responsive to consumer needs. It is also a requirement to compete against internet retail, by allowing the customers to receive products faster. Thirdly, oil will become more expensive in the US, as the Dollar debase. Transportation cost will rise, making domestic manufacturing, and local manufacturing, more attractive. How much production finishing should be done at the retail level will be the reigning business question for the next 50 years.

As an example, clothes fitting is one manufacturing activity still done at the physical store. The electronic installation and software configuration at the user level is another "manufacturing" activity that's keeping electricians and computer geeks working today. Sysco and the restaurant industry is all about production finishing. Ebay is full of vendors selling electronic parts that the users, or the enterprising local merchant, can assemble into finished products. That is a job opportunity that you can get into, whether you're recently unemployed or thinking about college.

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