Studying Business at a Public School

by
Associate Vice President of Planning, Enrollment Management, and Student Affairs, California State University, East Bay

Many, many students think they want to have a career in business, and many, many students end up with those careers. Does this mean they all majored in business as undergraduates? No, not at all. In fact, a strong liberal arts background with some business and economics courses can provide excellent training for eventual work in the world of business, and often students with this path end up studying business in greater depth in graduate school, typically in an M.B.A. program. And many private universities in particular encourage this approach, believing that the best preparation for specific careers in business comes at the graduate level.

There is nothing wrong with the above approach; it is great for students who know that an M.B.A. is in their future and can manage that option, whether they attend private or public universities as undergraduates. But thousands of students either don’t have the luxury of postponing a career until after graduate education and/or are eager, even passionate, about studying and preparing for business during their undergraduate years.

For those students, they are in luck, because many of America’s public universities (including University of California at Berkeley, the University of Michigan, the California State University, and other fine institutions across the country), offer undergraduate business majors. These programs are all grounded in a solid liberal arts foundation, usually through a university’s comprehensive general education programs, ensuring that students are exposed to a wide variety of disciplines at the college level, from English composition and literature to the natural sciences to mathematics to history and the social sciences. And most offer amazing options to study an aspect of business in depth.

These business programs are not just putting out technicians but seeking to train responsible leaders who will make decisions in a sound manner, who will not seek simply to maximize short-term profits for themselves and the entities for which they work. This is a hallmark of business education in America, in both private and public institutions. Public universities may have a special mandate in this way though, as they are funded by taxpayers of their respective states and are accountable to our society in a direct way.

What does this mean for students in a practical sense? Well, take for example the mission statement from the College of Business of my own institution, one of the campuses of the California State University (I think this is indicative of what students find at other universities):

The mission of the College of Business and Economics is to prepare students to make ethical choices and succeed in a dynamic business environment shaped by the challenges of a competitive global economy, emerging technologies, and diverse stakeholders.

And you’ll find guiding principles like this not just in the California State University system but at each public university that places an emphasis on teaching students to think critically, to be ever mindful, and to realize the impact their actions have on others (and, again, in one way or another, most do). These schools seek to impart an understanding that to be a successful business leader, one has to be a responsible member of the community—in one’s town, one’s state, one’s country, and, ultimately, in the world.

Business education in public universities today tends to provide breadth and depth to students, teaching the basic knowledge and skills necessary to understand the national and global business environment, and also by giving students exposure to many different aspects of the field of business. Many students are able to specialize in a business option that will best prepare them for the type of career they wish to have—for example, in finance, accounting, international business, or advertising.

What are the classes you are likely to take? For starters, they are amazingly varied! From introductory classes that give you an overview of the field and a sense of the theory behind business practices to very specific courses delving into a certain aspect of the field, students are exposed to the many different facets that “business,” in its many forms, entails. Once students have completed their general education and introductory courses, they move on to upper-division courses that really solidify their knowledge of key business areas. Here a just a few course topics from one of America’s leading public universities:

  • Financial Institutions and Markets
  • Investments
  • E-Business
  • Consumer Behavior
  • Brand Management and Strategy

And there are many, many more at each public university!

As a student, if you know that a business career is for you, you will be well served by studying as an undergraduate at one of America’s public universities. You will be trained in how to use information technology, you will be given analytical tools necessary for success, you will learn communication skills and teamwork, and you will gain a solid grounding in the principles and ethics of the profession.

Many students also take advantage of internships as undergraduates and thus gain critical real-world experience before they graduate. Do those opportunities always come easily? Not necessarily. That’s why it’s important to seek them out: ask your professors and advisors, and go to the internship center if there is one on your campus. Each university has dedicated faculty and staff in business and in student services there to help you, but they need to know that you are interested and want to grow.

You might be amazed at the internship opportunities, or you might not be enthralled by all of the options first available to you. But you should take advantage of any crack at experiential learning you can get. Who knows? You may not think you are interested in banking but after an internship at Citibank or Wells Fargo, you may love it and find that this is the career for you! Or you may decide that banking is not for you and you want to pursue accounting. Either way, you will have had the experience—experience that will help you make up your mind on what you want to do, experience that will count on your résumé, experience in what it is like to work in the “real world.”

The first step to not just pursuing some vague career in business; it’s becoming a leader in the field and a shaper of business in the future. For many students, that first step starts with applying to one of the many public universities in America. The next step, after admission, is deciding to enroll and pursue a business major. And the step after that is to maximize what is offered—in your classes, in choosing a concentration if offered, in pursuing internships, in making connections—and then to graduate with a degree that will help you launch yourself on the path to your future.

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