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December 12, 2011
Want to Make a Lot of Money? Don't Major in Business.
 
Warning: This blog may be bad for your health.

According to some recent statistics, one in five college students today is majoring in business. Who recommended that dumb major? The pay statistics sure don’t support it. In fact, majors in American studies, political science, philosophy, and literature (that’s right, the humanities — literature) make more money by mid-career than business majors.
 
This is not a blog that business majors and their parents will want to read. In fact, the Penelope Trunks of the world were probably already pissed by the first paragraph. Tough!
 
In the latest Pay Scale salary survey data for full-time employees who possess a Bachelor’s degree and no higher degrees, there’s lot of bad news for business majors. You really, really need a liberal arts degree to make big money.
 
Recent employer surveys conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers find that workplaces most value three skills that you’re far more likely to find with a liberal arts education: communication competency, analytic excellence, and collaborative teamwork. Don’t be too quick to think those skills are easy to come by or that you’re a natural. The level of skill sophistication demanded by most firms today would come as a shock to 99% of the twentieth-century workforce. On top of those recruitment demands, six-figure salaries are requiring three big squishy traits: adaptability, exploration competency, and entrepreneurialism. In short, the driving contribution of liberal arts is a well-developed ability to learn and think, both fast and successfully.
 
What are the “liberal” arts?
 
I realize that many already hate this blog because it has the word “liberal” in it. The masses think that liberal arts types are artsy people who speak French, study Plato, ponder cloud formations, and dress like counter-culture bohemians. There’s a terrible misunderstanding about the liberal arts, and it’s not just college students who don’t get it. So here’s a bit of history.
 
The liberal arts began in the Middle Ages with the Trivium (“the three”): grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Then they expanded with the Quadrivium (“the four”): arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Ever wonder why music majors do well in software development and application? It’s the pattern thinking they learn in their artsy, music major. In most of the better colleges today, the liberal arts have expanded to what are labeled the humanities (English, languages, philosophy, the arts), the physical and biological sciences, and the social sciences (linguistics, history, sociology, political science). College and university leadership will tell you that the real purpose of the liberal arts is to enable students to make informed decisions of the most significance.
 
So some techie is going to tell me he or she knows how to make informed decisions? Sorry, research won’t support that widespread notion. Research findings consistently reveal that what students and graduates know is related to what they study and how they have studied it. Vo-tech schools — many so-called engine, tech, and business schools — focus solely on the what. As a consequence they are limited in the how — including how to think and make informed decisions. If you think this is liberal arts elitism, you’re quite correct. And them’s the facts.
 
What that means, of course, is that engineering majors in the best schools are liberal arts majors. They take a lot of liberal arts courses, including humanities, physical sciences, biology, chemistry, math, and the arts. Both the top public research universities and private engineering schools, including Cal Tech and MIT, require the liberal arts in both their engineering and computer science programs. And some of the top liberal arts colleges that don’t offer engineering have what is known as a 3/2 engineering degree. These colleges, like Bates, Carleton, Macalester, Williams, and Colorado College, provide three years of classic liberal arts, and then their students march off to the engineering programs at Columbia, Wash U, Dartmouth, and Princeton. I’ve worked with several of them. They’re really, really smart — and they make a lotta dough.
 
Furthermore, many of the top schools don’t even offer an undergrad major in business. Stanford, Harvard, Chicago, Princeton, Yale, and Dartmouth don’t have undergrad business schools, nor do they offer an undergrad business major. They want the future business leaders to focus on a broad range of topics in the liberal arts and sciences. Just as you can’t major in medicine or law as an undergraduate, you can’t major in business as an undergrad at many of the top schools. They believe you need a liberal arts background to support the graduate MBA. Plenty of undergrads with a business major have tried to get into top business schools and found, to their shock, that those schools usually aren’t interested in undergrad business majors. Glenn Hubbard, Dean of Columbia’s graduate business school, put it this way: “Go to the best liberal arts college you can get into and learn how to think.”
 
Why do so many colleges offer business majors? As a former university faculty member, I can tell you the answer in one word: MONEY. The populace believes business majors are the key to vocational success, so…In case you haven’t noticed, many of the large public research universities in the first and second tier charge more for business majors than any other undergrad major. That’s telling.
 
What did I tell my daughters? Get in one of the top liberal arts colleges and major in whatever you want — not business, even if they offer it. Do they do well financially? You can bet your sweet bippy on that one.
 
So what, over the long term, are the best liberal arts majors for big money? The top 30 salaries at mid-career all emphasize science and math — the liberal arts. Business doesn’t get near the top 30 careers. It’s number 59 in the listing. So knock it out of your thinking.

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Dan Erwin, PhD, is a specialist in performance improvement. Over more than 25 years he has coached nearly 500 officers, executives, and managers from top American corporations by means of his very original, cutting-edge development program. Shockingly, you can't Google his name prior to 2008 — due to the demands of his clients. He blogs at danerwin.typepad.com, and tweets at twitter.com/danerwin.

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