Save the Arts, Cut Business

When budgets are tightened, stern gray utilitarians emerge from their newly-renovated buildings to inform us that it’s the creative and humanities-oriented types they’ve looked down on for years should suffer when the state decides to slash education funding.

The Montana state university system is facing a potential $23 million budget shortfall, so some combination of budget cuts and tuition hikes will almost certainly be necessary to close the gap. The arts and humanities seem to be on the cutting block by default, but the equally-expensive business college somehow tends to evade scrutiny in public conversations on budget cuts.

In 2010 (the most recent department-level data available online), the MSU College of Business Instruction received $3.9 million, Art received $1.5 million, Media and Theater Arts received $1.5 million and Music received $1.4 million, for a combined total of $4.4 million. History and Philosophy received $1.8 million, Political Science received $600,000, English received $1.7 million and Sociology received $900,000 for a total of $5 million. Anyone seeking to fill a budgetary hole by cutting the arts or humanities could squeeze just about as much money out of cutting the business college, and MSU would not have to sacrifice concerts, theater performances or the core subjects of a liberal education.

While both the arts and humanities have deep value in fostering self-expression and the exploration of the human experience through art or the creation of an educated and engaged citizenry through the humanities, the College of Business does not even pretend to have intrinsic value. Its entire purpose is to prepare students to be high earners, and business colleges as a whole do an abysmal job at even this limited mission. Business majors come in 56th in long-term earning potential, behind archetypical “useless majors” like philosophy and history, in part because the job market is flooded with them — business majors make up about 20 percent of college graduates — and in part because 93 percent of employers value communication, critical thinking and problem solving over having any particular major.

“But it will prepare students to get an MBA,” I can already hear future corporate climbers saying. On average, business students fare worse in MBA programs than students in the liberal arts who have picked up critical-thinking and analytical skills often sidelined in the style-and-presentation-oriented world of the business degree. In fact, according to data from the Collegiate Learning Assessment published in the 2010 book Academically Adrift, business majors learn among the least of any students in college. Prospective business students would be better off choosing a major like history, political science or philosophy — they’d make more money, be better prepared for an MBA and they’d gain a deeper education along the way.

The arts and humanities have intrinsic value in exploring the human condition and providing students with the background to navigate political and ethical questions. Business colleges make no claims to uphold a higher good. They seek only to create more effective corporate functionaries with a slightly higher long-term earning potential and generally fail to achieve even this limited aim. If the business college can’t even produce corporate cogs that spin marginally faster than others, it should be cut long before the arts and humanities are touched.