Caveat Emptor

It’s not often that a Gallup poll result makes me feel pity, but this one did. Briefly, this study asked college graduates about their interest in and satisfaction with their careers. Do you like your job? Do you find your job interesting and rewarding?

This study suggests business graduates as a group are bored and unfulfilled. (For those keeping score, social science and education graduates reported highest feelings of satisfaction and reward.)

And it’s not a slim majority, either. Fewer than 40% of those surveyed agreed with the statement “I am deeply interested in the work that I do.” And, of those who graduated with business degrees between 2000 and 2014, fewer than 40% liked their work. In other words, more than half the graduates of business schools do not enjoy the very activity their very focused education prepared them for.

Even if we factor in post-graduate studies, which appear to boost both happiness and interest levels, business students still lag behind, with an interest level of only 43%. And, the news got worse.

Business graduates can’t claim to be top money earners, either.

Not surprisingly, the Gallup study shows that business graduates typically out-earn social science, education, and humanities grads (The debate regarding earning potential for humanities continues: see this and that). However, business graduates are not the top earners. That distinction went to those with degrees in the sciences who, you’ll remember, are also happier and more interested in their work.

So, where does the pity come into play?

When I saw the poll results, I thought of an student I taught a few years ago.

I was trying to provoke a discussion about competing values systems. I used the example of public attitudes towards teachers. For example, whenever teachers ask for some improvement in their working conditions, public voices demand to know why teachers don’t care about children.

I asked a student – an Accounting major — why we don’t demand that accountants forego compensation. Why, in short, don’t accountants do their work out of sheer love of numbers?

“I don’t really like numbers,” she said.

This was an upper-year student whose focussed course of study was designed to set her up for a lifetime of working with numbers. She had just admitted she had no interest in either her major or her presumed career.

I knew from my exposure to Accounting majors that they tended to be very bright, highly competitive, and they were generally seen as star performers by both faculty and the student body. But here was one who, despite succeeding in the competition, didn’t find the prize appealing. Why was she there?

Every year, increasing numbers of students apply to and enter business colleges straight out of high school. (Indeed, business degrees are the hottest ticket in undergraduate studies these days.) We can safely assume these numbers reflect the widespread perception that business degrees offer a stable future, including assured employment. Indeed, with promises of a “rewarding career,” business schools echo these assumptions. So, where are the “rewards”?

Some would argue that this student, as an adult, chose her academic path and, as an adult, she must accept the consequences: a degree in a subject she doesn’t find interesting that will lead to a career that will likely make her neither rich nor happy.

But, did she really have a choice?

When this student made her choice, her reasoning was likely swayed by a marketing campaign that extended into common discourse. If she made a choice, it was because she trusted and believed those around her — teachers, parents, other students — who told her that a business degree was the sure path to lifelong employment. But what if those statements were based on a perception that, if the Gallup poll is accepted, seems to be at odds with the lived experiences of business graduates?

At the end of four years, there’s a very good chance this student – and others like her – will have employment, but at what cost?

Is there a case here for false advertising?