Is the MBA the Degree for Slackers?

by John A. Byrne on

A controversial story claiming that business has become the default major for undergraduate slackers is gaining some resonance with MBA graduates and B-school profs who say there are similar problems in graduate business education.

The story, “The Default Major: Skating Through B-School,” is a collaboration between The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education. It reports that business majors spend less time preparing for class than do students in any other broad field. Quoting from a new book, “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” the article also claims that business majors had the weakest gains during the first two years of college on a national test of writing and reasoning skills.

And when business students take the GMAT, according to the book, they score lower than students in every other major. The story also attacks the large number of group assignments in business schools as a way for students to avoid doing much work.

While the entire article deals with undergraduate business education, the comments the story is attracting on the New York Times’ website shows that the criticism has hit a chord with MBA graduates as well.

A WHARTON MBA CLAIMS THERE WAS RAMPANT CHEATING AT THE SCHOOL.

Writes a reader from Seattle who claims to have a Wharton MBA: “All of the problems mentioned in this article were rampant in my program, along with one not mentioned: cheating. I vividly recall an advanced accounting exam whose answers were passed around the night before. I’ve often thought about that exam when reading about the financial collapse.

“As for group projects, after a disastrous experience replete with free-riding, I gave up on my group and did the rest of the ‘group’ projects alone. It was lonely, but it was better than having my work stolen.

“To be perfectly blunt about it, I saw more effort, honesty, and curiosity in my parochial elementary school than I did at Wharton. I don’t regret the MBA – it paid well. But there is a material level of fraud in even the ‘elite’ programs. Caveat emptor.”

The Wharton MBA basher was not the only critic. Another reader, identifying himself as ‘Mark’ from Boston, claimed that his MBA class “was mostly composed of people who had been in the real world and it was required for them to have had relevant business experience. But it was the same story. We had our upper 10 percent who were driven and then pretty much everyone else. There were only two people who didn’t get the degree (and shouldn’t have) but I can’t imagine most of the rest in any sort of leadership position.”

Mark, who said he was a science major undergrad with a master’s in computer science as well as an MBA, said he also taught as an adjunct professor for 22 years. “I can tell you that the business students are, always, the least interested in learning, and the most mediocre students I have,” he wrote.

GROUP WORK WAS A WAY TO DO LITTLE OR NO WORK FOR SOME.

The reader also had less than positive things to say about the group work in his MBA program. “We, too, used the group way of doing things, except in my group we literally kicked someone out for not doing their share. We were, however, the only ones that did and the person found a home elsewhere and went on to graduate.

“That being said, I like to think that these people all get washed out in the real world, but I think that’s wishful thinking for the most part. I follow most of my classmates and some of these types are either hanging on somewhere (probably by getting others to do the work and taking the credit as in school) or, more interestingly, not going anywhere…But I think the serious problem is at the administrative level because these people should be failed out of the programs and they’re not. At least 30 percent of my MBA class should have exited but didn’t because they were worth $85,000 (in tuition) for the two years.”

STUDENTS AT A TOP-TEN MBA PROGRAM CAN’T ‘COMPOSE SIMPLE SENTENCES OR PAPERS WITH BASIC ORGANIZATION.’

A recent law school graduate told the Times that her boyfriend is currently enrolled in a Top 10 MBA program. “Over the past year, I have proof-read his various groups’ papers for spelling, grammar, etc. and have been blown away at his fellow students’ inability to compose even simple sentences or papers with basic organization,” she wrote. “When I mentioned this fact to some friends recently, including a girl who had recently graduated from the same MBA program last spring, she said: ‘They grade us on our ideas–NOT on our ability to write.’ At a top ten business school? My law professors seemed perfectly capable of grading us on both.”

Also wading into the debate stirred up by the article are business school professors who largely reaffirm the story’s criticisms. One person describing himself as a B-school teacher at a “large state university,” wrote that “business majors do not want to read or truly try to master their subjects. I believe many students major in business subjects because they’ve heard they can get a job.

1 2
  • Arthur Featherstonehaugh Dullsworth

    Slackerism and cheating are different issues. The Wharton chick (for some reason I assume the Seattle Wharton MBA is a woman) seems more aggrieved by hassle of group projects than one incident of cheating on an accounting exam (though I’m tempted to say it serves her right for taking advanced accounting — nobody cares about that stuff). Cheating may occur from time to time at any school, but groups are exhausting. Few people enjoy the hell of group projects. The problem is not that some members of a group are slackers, it is rather that there’s almost no limit to the amount of effort demanded. For which reason I reply that b-school is very, very hard. What’s more, I learned more at b-school when the other people in my group were slackers. HTH

  • Deborah

    I agree about some things here, esp. students’ lack of writing ability, but I know many students in my MBA program that bid tons of points for electives with very demanding professors who were superlative teachers. I was one of the lucky ones who was delighted to work above and beyond and beyond in Jim Collins’s class at Stanford. I do think the trends you are seeing are tragic and stellar teaching alone is not the sole answer, but it is a component.

  • AK

    I’m a current Wharton MBA student (part of the Class of 2011 graduating this May) and transitioning into a consulting role after school.

    In response to the general criticism about the degree, I think it’s very much a question of what sort of priorities while at school: academics, recruiting, extracurriculars, socializing, and sleep. Usually, recruiting is at the forefront while academics and sleep are at the bottom (for better or worse).

    Grade non-disclosure may have an impact on lack of priority for academics, as well. Since recruiters generally don’t refer to our grades, there’s little incentive for us to perform outstandingly in the classroom. On balance, though, I’m a huge advocate of the policy, not so much because I don’t want recruiters to know my grades but because it gave me the freedom to explore subjects I had less exposure to (such as finance) without worrying about protecting my GPA.

    As a consequence, I’ve observed that there’s no correlation between those who get the highest GPAs and the classmates who’ve impressed me the most with the depth and subtlety of their thoughts. That isn’t to suggest that we’re all slackers here, it’s simply that we all have different priorities while here.

    All of this does lead to undeniable tensions between the faculty and student body – who have a very different set of classroom expectations and priorities. This is something that has definitely been highlighted at Wharton and is something that we’re still trying to address.

    Finally, in response to the specific comment from the Seattle-based MBA from Wharton, I find that the group-based learning experience differs from group to group (naturally). Some groups have been very effective, whilst others less so. In my case, we didn’t have the most effective group in terms of grades (and we did have one or two slackers – but that’s because they were busy winning national stock pitch competitions) but the group was also a great learning experience in terms of managing small group dynamics. (How do you manage a team with differing backgrounds, personalities and priorities in a non-hierarchical environment?) And even while we weren’t the most effective in terms of grades, they’ve all become great friends and helpful in terms of recruiting and stuff. So I guess you make what you can out of the experience…

    All in all, I’ve been stretched and grown across numerous dimensions during my time here in Philadelphia. Say what you will about the problems at the program, but the trajectory of my life has completely changed (positively) during my time here and I’ll always be grateful to the school.

  • http://poetsandquants.com/members/jbyrne/ John A. Byrne

    AK,
    Thanks much for your thoughtful reply.

  • PoetANDQuant

    Ok, this is another piece that rightly highlights the weaknesses in business education. The wrong people doing the wrong things are pushed through because changing course would be expensive in the short-term for the universities and the outcome would not be certain. In short, there is no leadership at work, only following. If you think business education has anything to do with leadership, you are either really stupid or deeply dishonest. This is especially true for the administrators of the programs.

    I doubt the schools will ever resolve this. The likely resolution will come from larger societal forces. The end of douchebaggery (slacker sounds like hippies at coffee shops, this is the much more pernicious right-wing version of wasteoids) is likely to come from the blow-up from our warped political economy. When that happens the schools will have to go searching for a new scam.

  • Bruce Vann

    It is so interesting that economics wasn’t mentioned but business was. I studied economics via the school of business in undergrad and will start an MBA program this fall. Since I haven’t started an MBA yet I can only tell you my take on this subject from an undergrad perspective.

    1) A problem with majoring in business is that most people already think that they’re good at business without any studying of the subject. This causes students to often times not care about what they’re studying.

    2) It’s not fair to stereotype groups of people. I met several people who fit the negative description of business students in the NY Times article but that doesn’t mean that I should automatically consider the business student a slacker because of his or her major. For instance, I personally was very engaged and passionate about the study of business. If I studied anything else I would have been bored out of my mind. Moreover, we have to be careful about judging groups of people with overarching stereotypes. We saw Crash (the movie). No sane person would say, “Because you’re a cop you must be crooked” or “Because you’re Arab you’re a terrorist.” (Note: Glen Beck is insane). So why is it acceptable to so many to harp on business majors?

    3) Many of us can’t write as well as humanities majors… so what? Our homework was generally problem sets. I didn’t major in business to talk your head off. We came to find the best course of action and to implement it. That’s what we’re trained to do.

  • Bruce Vann

    4) Most majors are designed to make you an academic. And that’s great for them. But business isn’t supposed to do that. You’re supposed to walk away from it with a basic understanding of accounting, economics, finance, operations management, and organizational behavior. Understanding these disciplines really help you out on the job. For instance, I was able to figure out why my firm had profitability problems in a specific state directly because I understood accounting and only some others did.

    5) Many people from other majors find that what they learned wasn’t applicable to finding a job and then decide to either work toward an MBA or a post-baccalaureate certificate. There is immediate tangible value in understanding tax-exemption, time value of money, and whether a firm that can cover variable costs and some fixed costs should stay open in the short term.

  • Bruce Vann

    6) Economics- Many business programs allow this as a major in the school of business. I think that this is where the truly intellectually curious students tend to go. I started out majoring in entrepreneurship, got A’s and hated it because I didn’t feel like I learned anything when the class was over. That criticism of business schools on the undergrad level is somewhat true from my experience. Some of those management classes only required me to outline the chapters, read over the outlines, and take the test. But econ was very useful because it improved my writing, quantitative, and verbal debate skills tremendously.

  • mba2013

    Partly why business students can’t write – The GMAT exam. Has GMAC considered changing the exam to reflect the true verbal ability of an individual? NO. It tests the critical reasoning, sentence correction and Reading comprehension skills. I have a friend at Booth right now. He constantly rewrites his group’s term papers. How do students who can’t write or even speak, YES SPEAK proper English at the top schools get away with this? He has mentioned a couple of times of instances whereby students with 790 on the GMAT, are having a difficult time recruiting for investment banking. Simply because recruiters have to struggle to understand what they are saying or the students cannot communicate effectively. If you can’t put a sentence together comprehensively, how does the 790 GMAT score explain your lack of communication or writing skills? simple answer, the GMAT verbal has failed, just like this so called standardized tests.

    But keep on America, that is why our education system keeps lagging behind. We are busy teaching how to pass standardized tests while failing to teach students material that will help individuals more rounded.

  • Dr. Ironic

    “Simply because recruiters have to struggle to understand what they are saying or the students cannot communicate effectively.” You know that that’s a fragment, right? Oh the irony!! You enter business school this fall and are complaining about how business students can’t right well. Then you right a fragment and try to pass it off as a sentence. That is hilarious!!!!!!!!!!

  • Dr. Ironic’s Ironic Doctor

    Dr. Ironic,

    I believe the correct term is “write”, not “right.” As in, “business students can’t WRITE well.”

  • Dr. Ironic

    You’re write!!

  • Clint

    I have to echo AK’s comments: Its ALL about priorities (and people of different priorities judging each other)

    Who is to say what the RIGHT reason to study something is? Of course many professors are going to look negatively on a student thats not in it for the academics.

    And a student in B-school for the networking is going to look down on a study-monkey for not attending happy hour.

    Personally, I’m in b-school to learn & network: Not to get grades. Cheating offends me the most, because its precisely counter to the value I gain from the experience.

    One can certainly make the argument that certain reasons for attending b-school are more or less rational (even ethical) than others, but no one should be surprised this conflict exists. (Hint: its everywhere else as well, not just b-school)

  • http://www.bornin88.com KD

    When it comes to verbal skills, to be quite honest, I think graduate students in general may struggle with writing. I took the GRE instead of the GMAT and didn’t study at all for verbal but still hit 80th percentile and in Kaplan practice tests consistently hit over 90th percentile. Granted I come from a journalism background but still, it shouldn’t be that easy. I think schools in general should step it up when it comes to writing requirements and quality. A lot of people discount the ability to effectively communicate ideas and only credit the content. I think this simply won’t do. But on the other hand, I’m a poet heading to b-school, hopefully this means I can trade quant tutoring for paper editing :)

  • DR

    I’m currently enrolled in a “B” school MBA program and must say that I do feel this article is quite accurate to my program and cohort. While my group is diverse in experience, and everyone seems to pull their weight, I see too many other groups where one or two just skate by. In addition, I see students who don’t read, hardly study, and still receive B’s from professors. I feel it’s a problem that has to do with both students and the schools. As many have mentioned, students have multiple priorities (and my program is part-time so everyone is a full-time working professional), however students who do not apply themselves should not be allowed to skate by because they showed up to class.
    Teachers in my program seem to grade rather easy as students cannot pass the program with more than 2 C’s. Some of the work/tests I’ve turned in that have received A’s I wouldn’t have gotten in my undergraduate business program ( I guess I can’t complain too much since I do have an 3.93 GPA). However, this notion of easy grading I feel is just a disservice to both the students and the school. Students end up with a piece of paper without the required knowledge to back up the claim they can succeed in the world. Schools receive a tarnished reputation for turning out poor performing students (my friend’s father refuses to even meet with potential candidates who received a degree from a different state school as he feels the program is a joke).
    Case in point below is the grading scale for one of my current class (… this is the craziest grading scale I have seen to date though, no other class had a B below 80)
    95~100: A+
    90~95: A
    85~90: A-
    80~85: B+
    70~80: B
    60~70: B-

  • dave

    This was true at Hofstra undergrad in the early 80’s

    Pre-med, Economics, Poly-sci, English, History were challenging and writing mattered. Business classes were multiple choice. Professors gave the same tests every semester. Gold Key had the cheat codes. Of course there were exceptions depending on course levels. Finance was not a cake walk.

  • dave

    Cheating is wrong, but giving the same multiple choice test semester after semester should be grounds for firing.

  • wazzujon

    I received my Management degree and contemplated getting my MBA, but instead I opened my own business. Owning and operating your own business educates you more then any MBA program. Save your money that you will spend on getting an MBA, and use it to open your own business.

  • Ben

    I do consider my self to be fortunate when it came to group project teammates. Whether it was while I was working on my under-grad at Wisconsin and then my MBA at University of Chicago each teammate always pulled their weight. It’s funny some of you have mentioned your experience at Wharton. My good friends younger sister went to U Penn for her under-grad and graduated from Wharton, (she’s now at Stanford working on her MBA). She used to tell us stories about having had Ivanka Trump in a couple of her classes and worked on a couple of group projects with her. She said that Trump was such a bad teammate that she never was prepared, show-up for meetings half the time and then insisted on taking control of the group when she did show-up. I still consider myself so fortunate never to have had a bad teammate for any of my group projects. I also found it funny that so many of my classmates had such little understanding about finance and even less about accounting, even for a school like Booth. Intermediate accounting was no picnic, but advanced accounting was tough. I did feel bad for my classmates who were poli-sci or history majors at Harvard. They didn’t know what hit them. As far as cheating goes, I didn’t really see it all that much, but then again I received my MBA in the late 1990s. Different time, era, etc but I will say this, technology has made a difference, considering that so many prof’s around the country use the same books, especially for accounting and finance, that answers are available on the internet. I mean seriously I can think of two Intermediate accounting books that professors use. I hope that current students haven’t become more dishonest, but I am amazed how recruiting and organized social events/team building events are the main focus and not school. I mean didn’t we go to college to learn. I actually had a professor at Booth tell me in a straight face that one of the most important things I will gain from my MBA is the networking contacts and he was right, but now that really seems to be the main focus.

  • http://www.MichaelMusgrove.com Michael

    When I was an English major and Business minor at a large southern state university, I was perpetually annoyed by the inequities between the humanities school and the business school. I spent a lot of time running back and forth between schools, and had (and have) many close friends, colleagues and fraternity brothers that were business majors.

    I saw rampant cheating, and when caught, the professor would have the student retake the exam, usually unproctored, because it was too much of a headache to go through the bureaucratic rigamarole of accusing a student of cheating, and taking what should be the proper measure: expulsion. In addition, the lower level class professors NEVER changed their exams from semester to semester and year to year. Not even the numbers in many cases; just perfect copies. My (and most) fraternity had massive test databases for every class, every professor, every term. And those materials were checked out a lot.

    As we approached graduation, I watched my business major friends snag high-paying jobs and positions with firms with technical requirements I knew they had no idea about because they never studied, and min. GPA requirements that they met through skating through college with all undeserved A’s and B’s.

    Despite people apparently believing English majors study nothing but editing, spelling, vocabulary and grammatical rules in college while memorizing Shakespeare, that’s not really the case, and while I spent long hours studying, writing(a LOT), researching, analyzing, stressing and learning(not to mention reading thousands of pages of stuff that would make morphine feel benign), my business school friends were typically out having fun, test bank exam in hand. Those are now the same guys, 15 years later, that are now heading companies and divisions, and we wonder why we see stories of corruption and ineptitude in industry.

    Students are to blame, but they know where opportunity lies, and the opportunity is provided by professors who are stressed about publishing and their schools that place too much emphasis on research. (I write this as a man who has an MBA, who loves his friends even if they cheat, and whose wife is a marketing professor, but unfortunately it’s a reality)

  • Mohamed Ebrahim

    I am due to graduate with an MBA finance concentration in July of this year from a Top 10 non-US school in Europe.

    I agree sometimes some of my classmates in group work were slackers, some especially from Middle East had questionable English speaking and writing skills, some from I India and Africa (I am am African of Indian ethnic origin)had excellent English writing and reading skills but speaking skills were lacking due to accents. But most were quite capable of original thoughts and were analytical. depending on the modules, would either excel or slack. The Caucasian’s also had the same depending excel or slack depending on module but has a difficult time in original thinking. The group work similates the work environment, so most groups I was a memeber of usually allocated tasks based on group member strengths, like White male would almost always lead the presentation, Indian would do number cruching, White female would work on the structure and written part, I would do research or number cruching depending team composition. Most MBA’s are aspiring business leaders, we do not need to know everything in detail but have the skills to get the knowledge as and when required, deal with people and get others do the work. There are specialist in nearly every discipline, MBA’s learn to harness their strenghts, use diversity to our advantage and get work done. I also was used often to explain the presenter the details of how the group work was arrived at and would help in answering questions from the floor after presenting the group work.

    NB: I am not trying to streotype or be racist but giving examples of how people of different backgrounds can work productively together to achieve results which individually we cannot. Like I am not good at long presentations, but can think on my feet i.e. answer almost any question thrown in a short concise answer (like a spin doctor)as I have relatively good spoken English as it is one of the two official languages in my Country.

  • wally

    I am due to graduate next summer with an MBA in Accounting and Finance from an online program. I was skeptical of online programs at first, but with one year in, I’m quite satisfied, because history and economics doesn’t change from school to school. The demands and emphasis of writing, presentation skills, and team work does and must come from the school and professors. Although networking is a critical piece of B-School and deficient at an online program it’s not impossible. When it comes to writing skills, I echo my fellow writers because I too, have noticed that that writing and communicating one’s ideas is a serious issue across the board. One of our fellow contributors, echoed that text books are slightly changed year to year, I too agree. Our society clearly hasn’t figured out how to use the internet explosion, that has come upon us. Cheaters exploit the use of the internet and system because society hasn’t learned to police the process effectively. I guess deep down We want to believe that everyone is honest or that it’s ok. There are many solutions and answers made available to cheaters just as they are many solutions and answers made available to those that want to succeed.

    Slackers will always exist because society demands it… The bar must be raised collectively, for the good of our nation…so the people echo…

  • Alan Jagolinzer

    I most recently taught Stanford MBAs for six years The students with whom I interacted were very bright and engaged. Many sought out a truly rigorous curriculum to add value going forward. Every population has variation, therefore, there are likely bad programs around. However, I think it is reckless to generally associate MBA education with “slackers”.

  • thekittenjuggler

    Business are composed of slackers who enrich themselves on the work of others. I don’t know why anyone is shocked and amazed the business school students behave this way. It’s clearly sad and disappointing but..such is the world we live in. If you want to be idealistic, get a PhD is something academic and spend the rest of your days in an ivory tower. I’m an idealist and hate business but I’m addicted to paychecks, so I keep my mouth shut, put my head down and make my worthless loser of a boss look good. In short, I’m a success.

  • Bruce Vann

    “Business are composed of slackers who enrich themselves on the work of others. I don’t know why anyone is shocked and amazed the business school students behave this way. It’s clearly sad and disappointing but..such is the world we live in. If you want to be idealistic, get a PhD is something academic and spend the rest of your days in an ivory tower. I’m an idealist and hate business but I’m addicted to paychecks, so I keep my mouth shut, put my head down and make my worthless loser of a boss look good. In short, I’m a success.” So your boss’ job is to make sure that you don’t drop a cat?

  • CanUSayDumDum

    Talk about hilarious. Someone who claims to know how to write when they don’t even know the difference between right and write. :-)

  • Joe Job

    I am inclined to believe that he was being ironic. ;)

  • Joe Job

    See!!!! I knew it!

  • Bob

    You need to know how to write to be able to be understood by others…

Partner Sites: C-Change Media | Poets & Quants for Execs | Tipping the Scales | Poets & Quants for Undergrads