Business School Curriculum Teaching Breadth versus Depth

“Professor Heller, less is better.” “Professor Heller you move too fast, we cover too much material.”

I often hear comments in person or read them on course evaluations reflecting these student sentiments. However, students typically do not have the vision or maturity to realize that Breadth is Better than Depth in their long-term interests. I explain to the students early in the semester that:

“My goal is to try to provide you quality content and application in as many relevant areas in the course topic as possible. I am confident that this approach will create a multitude of light bulbs in your minds. As you are out in the workplace these bulbs will spark as you are challenged in brainstorming the solutions to real-world problems. On various topics someday these sparks will provide you enough background to:

  • Recognize the issue,
  • Be familiar enough with relevant terminology and concepts to ask relevant questions, and
  • Be familiar enough with relevant terminology and concepts to research the topic yourself or coordinate research to gain further expertise on the topic.”

People often talk about having “enough knowledge to be dangerous.” I am convinced that this is what undergraduate education should be all about. The more light bulb moments created throughout the semester; the more valuable they will be in the workplace.

Statistics on Education Becoming Obsolete and Job Turnover

Consider these statistics in conjunction with the belief that Breadth is Better than Depth:

  • Today’s college graduates will average seven to eight different jobs during their lifetime and these
    positions may involve several different careers.
  • 50% of their college education will be obsolete in five years.
  • An acknowledged top economist Tim McGee, with U.S. Trust and Bank of America Private Wealth Management, states, “Today there is a much more rapid rate of change all throughout businesses, society, technology. And that tends to show up in the fact that jobs become obsolete, or need to change.  Skill sets need to change.”

Breadth in Functional Areas Outside Major Field Versus Too Much Specialization

These above statistics support exposing undergraduates to broader, functional coursework in order to better prepare students to take on the rapidly changing, technological world. Once graduated, students will be constantly challenged to understand and apply concepts outside their major. Many undergraduate business programs limit the student’s opportunity to take additional courses outside their functional area of concentration (accounting, finance, marketing, etc.) besides the one basic principals course required (Corporate Finance, Marketing Management). This limitation results from a combination of; (i) too many liberal arts, science and other courses required during their first two years of college that result in business courses comprising only one-half of their total undergraduate curriculum, and (ii) their major field of study requires too many specialized courses.

I have three sons all pursuing different majors in their undergraduate business degrees in finance, accounting and marketing. I have strongly advised them of the importance of taking as much coursework outside of their respective majors. Besides taking courses in real estate and investment valuation, taking several Management Information Systems (MIS) courses can be essential in applying technology in the real world upon graduation. Most undergraduate schools require only two basic MIS courses covering: (i) working knowledge of Excel and possibly Access applications, and (ii) introductory fundamentals of MIS. Further coursework within MIS in areas including web design, search engine optimization/marketing, social media, user requirements, systems design, and even programming is very advantageous. Many schools offer a minor or certificate in MIS with a little as three additional courses after the two basic required courses.

I fully support students declaring a major and graduating with a focused effort of coursework in their major field. However one needs to balance the importance of exposure to other functional business disciplines. My business degree was at the graduate level and I chose to get a Masters in Finance as opposed to the popular MBA degree as it allowed me more elective flexibility outside my major. The three courses outside finance I took were in real estate, investment analysis and tax accounting. These three courses turned out to provide valuable background as my career unfolded.

Relevant Double Major and/or Minor Degrees Attractive to Potential Employers

Provided that obtaining a double major and/or minor do not consume all a student’s business electives, this is a great direction to take. Even if this requires additional coursework above the minimum credits to graduate, this should result in the student being much more attractive to prospective employers. I have encouraged my three sons to take this path even if it means attending an additional semester or multiple summer school sessions. My son who is interested in a career in professional sales is planning on graduating with a marketing major along with two minors in both (i) Professional Selling and Sales Management, and (ii) MIS. Another son who is planning on a Masters in Public Accounting may also graduate with a second major in Finance and a minor in MIS.

The main objective in pursuing a curriculum of breadth is the long-term enhancement of your executive level problem solving abilities, but the short-term advantage in securing an attractive job offer upon graduation can be vital also.

Propelling Students Towards Broad Functional Exposure Will Require Curriculum Changes

Many students cannot financially afford additional semesters and need to graduate as soon as possible; at the same time they should be afforded the important exposure created by a second major and/or multiple minors. To accomplish this business schools need to both:

  • Reduce the number of required non-business courses during the first two years to allow students
    flexibility to take more business classes. In a similar fashion, most all undergraduate engineering degrees involve a much higher concentration of basic science, math and engineering courses with a more limited amount of required courses in liberal arts, language, etc.
  • Reduce the number of required designated elective courses in your major field. An example of this is one of my sons majoring in marketing is required to take a total of seven identified or elective marketing courses after the basic marketing fundamentals course. Consistent with this philosophy of Breadth is Better Than Depth, scaling this back from seven to maybe five would give students an opportunity to gain important background in other fundamental areas of business. However if the curriculum accomplishes the objective of the first point above, more coursework allocated to business classes, then major requirements could remain higher.

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