Students want to make a social impact

It’s time for a renaissance in undergraduate business education, says Michigan’s Ross associate dean

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There is so much discussion about the MBA degree, its future, and its value, that many are missing out on the quiet revolution that is happening elsewhere in business education.

Right now, business is the most popular college major. Student demand for undergraduate business degrees has never been higher. Applications have increased 15 per cent between 2008 and 2012, according to the AACSB. This wave is being driven by a new generation of students who continue to assess, before stepping foot on any college campus, which majors will result in a valuable degree and a successful career path.

However, this is not all they care about. Nor is it all we should provide them.

Today’s 18-to-21-year-olds are interested in making a positive impact on society through business. In this, they are a product of the times. Never before in our history have we seen such a demand for business leaders who know how to combine profits and purpose — or explored in such depth what it means when leaders fail their stakeholders in that regard.

Social media has made teenagers more aware of the good and bad in business than ever before. They seek skills that will make them employable and experiences that will turn them into leaders who will make a difference at their organisations, in their communities, and in the world.

In addition, they have a depleted tolerance for the business models of old. They do not merely expect but instead demand that the businesses they frequent as consumers, and someday will lead as professionals, are focused on affecting the greater good of their communities and the world.

With this convergence of interests, it’s high time for a renaissance in undergraduate business education. Existing old-school methods and programmes rely heavily on the traditional pillars of business education, and learning takes place predominantly, if not exclusively, within the confines of the classroom. This is not what today’s students want or need. in the same way the have evolved, our programmes must evolve with them.

Two studies bear this out. First, the Gallup-Purdue project on great jobs and great lives, which suggests that upon graduation, business students have low levels of engagement with their work and lack applied learning experiences to prepare them for their careers. And second, Richard Arum and Josipa Roska’s research on learning on college campuses, which found that business majors spend less time studying than other students and struggle to make a successful transition to the workforce.

The capacity to engage with your work; the availability of applied learning experiences; a challenging programme of study; the means for a successful transition to the workforce — institutions that do not address these needs are failing their students.

Educators have a responsibility to ensure that students majoring in business have rigorous, high-impact learning experiences that demand analytical thinking, the multiple framing of business problems and opportunities, real-world application of knowledge, and reflection of their learning in a way that prepares them for the world of work.

The colleges that will be poised to attract “millennials” — or the generation aged between 18 and 33 — are those that have reconsidered their outdated approaches to business education and made changes that will ensure a dynamic, instructive and well-rounded curriculum. The schools that have not yet done so, need to pause and re-evaluate their offerings. This re-evaluation is a lengthy process, but it is crucial for schools that want to stay competitive by providing an educational transition to adulthood that is both academically relevant and meaningful.

Positive business should be part of that curriculum. Not only is it gaining in importance in the business world, but also it is at the forefront of these students’ minds. In a recent Deloitte survey, millennials stated that “The success of a business should be measured in terms of more than just its financial performance, with a focus on improving society among the most important things it should seek to achieve” and that they were “eager to make a difference.”

The message could not be clearer. Thus, the leaders in business education are those that are not only reacting to this shift, but also innovating to get ahead of the evolving market demand — and in the process, transforming our students into informed, engaged, experienced, positive young adults who can make the difference they seek to make.

Lynn Wooten is associate dean for undergraduate programmes at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

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