Business studies lose luster

Tom Fontaine
| Friday, Jan. 22, 2010

A record four of five college freshmen want to be "very well off financially," but the smallest percentage in almost four decades wants to pursue degrees or jobs in business, a study released Thursday shows.

"Business is still one of the most popular fields, but it may not look as attractive to students as it once may have," said Linda DeAngelo, assistant research director of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, which surveyed college freshmen. She said high-profile corporate scandals and the poor economy may have driven away students.

That didn't deter Corinne Kelly, 18, a freshman in the University of Pittsburgh's business school. "I feel like, of all the fields, you can do almost anything with a business degree. You can't do that with an art history degree," Kelly said.

The institute's survey of 220,000 students at four-year colleges and universities found 78.1 percent think being well-off financially is essential or very important. That beat raising a family (74.7 percent), helping others in difficulty (69.1 percent), becoming an authority in a field (58.5 percent) or gaining recognition from colleagues (56.8 percent).

Being well-off is relative. "It could mean they want to be the next Bill Gates or, for some, that they want to own a home in their own community," DeAngelo said.

A declining proportion of freshmen views majors and careers in business as a path to financial security. Only 14.4 percent are considering business majors, down from 16.8 percent last year; and 12.1 percent are interested in business careers, down from 14.1 percent. Interest in business majors fell to the lowest level since 1974, while interest in business careers slipped to the lowest level since 1972.

Yet business remains a top field of study, followed by health professional programs (12.1 percent), biological sciences (9.8 percent) and engineering (9.8 percent). The fastest gainer among academic programs isn't an academic program at all: Students undecided on a major jumped from 6.2 percent last year to 6.8 percent this year, the study showed.

"We have seen some people change their minds away from business and go to other areas. I think it's a direct result of the hit the financial industry just took, and the stigma that business is filled with greed, and the perception that it's cutthroat," said J.P. Matychak, director of Pitt's College of Business Administration Career and Leadership Development Center.

"Those may be factors, and it's something we talk about, but I don't see it driving a lot of people away," said Tara Rizzo, 22, of Monongahela, a senior business and marketing major at Pitt.

Jordan Dagen, 21, of Lancaster, a senior finance major at Pitt, said "there might not be a whole lot of opportunities out there right now, but I don't think (the poor state of the economy) will last. I think it'll bounce back, and a lot of new opportunities will open up."

Matychak said many students aim for careers with nonprofit organizations and in government.

A Penn State University spokesman said interest in business is growing, with program applications jumping from 7,200 a year ago to 8,000 this year.

Applications are up at Duquesne University's A.J. Palumbo School of Business Administration, said Al Miciak, dean of the school.

The survey found 53.3 percent of freshmen plan to use loans to help pay for college, up 3.9 percent from last year, and 49.3 percent plan to get a job to help pay for college. Nearly 63 percent worked in high school, down 6.5 percent from 2007. About 42 percent said cost is important when choosing a college.

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