Studying Undergraduate Business: Should I get a B.S. in Business or B.A. in Econ?

Studying Undergraduate Business: Should I get a B.S. in Business or B.A. in Econ?

Students all over the world who are eager to study business flock to specialized business programs at the undergraduate level. Because of their popularity, these programs tend to be more selective than the general studies program of school of arts and sciences at that particular institution. For example, the Stern School of Business versus the College of Arts and Sciences at New York University (see Infographic 1 below), the Haas School of Business at the UC Berkeley, and UPenn Wharton are generally more difficult programs to earn a spot than some of the other sub-schools at their respective universities.

Studying Undergraduate Business

Before committing to apply to one of these undergraduate business programs, students should pause to consider whether or not such a program best suits their educational and career trajectory. This is especially important if you’re going to be stacking the deck against yourself to a greater extent in the admissions process by applying to more competitive programs. 

* * *

Before we get into the criteria for making your decision, let’s discuss what the primary differences are between a typical undergraduate business program and, for example, an Economics major coursework in the School of Arts & Sciences. To start, undergraduate business schools are usually offshoots of a prestigious business school for MBAs. This means that, simply put, undergraduate business school courses are quite a bit like MBA courses. The business school courses will focus on hands-on problem solving relying heavily on case studies, group work, simulations, negotiations, and other real-world issues. In many programs, you can focus further on a business-related concentration such as finance, marketing, or management. These are usually pillars of a first-year curriculum for MBA programs.

On the other hand, an Economics major in a typical liberal arts program would focus largely on economic theory before embarking on practical application of those concepts. This is emblematic of the liberal arts experience in which students build a foundation by starting with a theory or abstract idea and then build upon it before applying it. It should be noted that the fact that the liberal arts model starts with and focuses on theory does not make necessarily make it less advanced. That fact also does not make the liberal arts model less diverse in terms of curricular offerings. Economics majors have the potential to take cross-listed courses, blend their study with other disciplines, and even take a broad base of offerings within the major itself. At Dartmouth College, for example, Economics students can take hyper-specific classes on topics ranging from on Developing Economies, Industrial Organization, Money and Finance, Labor, the Public, and International Economics.

At a traditional general studies or liberal arts school, you’ll generally be taking more diverse coursework across many disciplines. This is especially the case at schools with Core curricula (UChicago, Columbia, etc.) and schools with reasonably strong distributive requirements (most schools). In most undergraduate business programs, students are confined largely to the offerings within that school and typically don’t have the time or ability to minor or major in a subject in one of the other schools or even take many classes in those. Each program is different, though, so you’ll need to do your research. The Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley does a particularly good job of making sure its students can take advantage of the liberal arts education alongside their business studies.

For most students interested in business, the liberal arts track will be more suitable because of the broader-base of experiences and knowledge as well as the skills built (research, critical reading and writing, communication, etc.) that will be useful in any business pursuit. The intentional flexibility of the liberal arts model can often make for a more nuanced candidate for even the most technical jobs.

* * * 

Now that we understand the educational basis of the different types of programs, let’s get into some criteria for making your choice between programs starting with some of the most common reasons I hear from students and their parents:

“I want to be a businessperson.”

Those who want to be in business need to think a bit more carefully about what that entails or what part of the study of “business” is enticing to them. This can be a difficult decision for a high school student to make, so you don’t need to paint yourself a crystal clear mental picture. Nevertheless, you should have better and more specific reasons than “I heard this is the best way to make money.” If that’s your goal, there are plenty of ways to make money in life and the generic academic pursuit of business study won’t necessarily bring you closer to that goal. A lot of people I challenge on this question respond with the clarifying addition that they eventually want to start their own businesses. Even this response, although still vague, allows them to hone in on specialized programs. Babson, for example, has an excellent undergraduate Entrepreneurship program that would be worth researching further.

“I want to have a better shot at getting into an MBA program.”

This is a bad reason, so you need to erase this from your mind. No MBA admissions officer will tell you that they were impressed by a candidate because of their decision to go through seven years of business school case studies. It’s not that this kind of background would necessarily hurt you in the MBA admissions process (although it might make you seem like a candidate who lacks imagination), but that it’s somewhat repetitive and that there is simply no causal relationship between the two. Just as a law school candidate isn’t going to impress Harvard Law School with legal knowledge or a “pre-law” curriculum, MBA candidates seldom make the case for themselves by boasting a business-like academic background.

Studying Undergraduate Business

“I want to get a better job.”

This is a better reason than the first two, and suggests that the student has put a bit more thought into the decision. If you don’t intend to go for a post-graduate MBA, undergraduate business school can help you prepare better for a consulting or finance job. On the other hand, those would-be employers hire just as many people who are Economics majors or even non-Economics majors from schools with liberal arts curricula. To prepare for those interviews (and the resultant jobs), you can just crack open a classic case studies book like Case in Point or read upon some Vault guides. You’ll get the necessary training on the job at almost any big company.

Aside from securing a relevant job in the first place, another popular reason students often consider undergraduate business school is because they’ve heard that a business degree is often required for certain promotions or pay bumps at larger companies. This is indeed true, but those companies do not mean undergraduate business degree (B.S.); they are talking about a Masters in Business Administration (MBA).


About the Author

David Mainiero, Co-Founder and Director of Operations of InGenius Prep, is an experienced educator and academic and admissions counselor with over almost a decade of experience helping students unlock their potential and achieve their dreams. Having founded and run multiple and small businesses, David has a strong entrepreneurial track record.

He graduated from Dartmouth College Summa Cum Laude with Highest Honors in History with a focus on Nationalism in the Near East and was inducted as a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Several years later, he earned a JD from Harvard Law School. To this day, he believes that the most important moments in his own education were learning with his peers during his time as a Policy Debater in high school and college.

David knows firsthand what success looks like and how to achieve it; his passion to help students discover their own passions and realize their fullest potential motivates him to travel all around the world to share his visions for educational access.