What Do Students Want From Business Programs?

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Tuesday, May 28, 2024
By Abigail Lister
Photo by iStock/gorodenkoff
Reviews indicate that students are looking for broad-based programs that provide rigorous teaching, experiential learning, and practical connections.
  • In the past two years, the number of students who have mentioned “curriculum” in reviews has climbed by 72 percent, indicating that students have specific expectations for business programs.
  • Students give four- and five-star ratings to programs they describe as “comprehensive,” “well-rounded,” or “varied.”
  • Students appreciate programs that offer opportunities for experiential learning; if courses are too theoretical or have no real-world application, students consider them irrelevant.

Business school leaders frequently discuss how their institutions should adapt their curricula to cater to rapid changes in the business world, whether this means adding a sustainability element or acknowledging innovations such as artificial intelligence. But these discussions often lack one key perspective: the students’ own priorities.

In general, business school graduates have positive feelings about their study experiences: 90 percent of respondents to a 2022 study from the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) rated their graduate management education (GME) favorably. However, statistics like these, based on multiple-choice reporting, don’t always represent the breadth of student experiences or convey how students feel about different aspects of their programs. Schools that want to update their programs could find it useful to consult qualitative data provided by real-time student reviews.

A sampling of such reviews was collected from November 2016 through March 2024 by the student review platform EDUopinions. In the compilation, students left comments about bachelor’s, master’s, MBA, and doctoral programs categorized under the subject of “business and management.” The platform collected reviews that specifically featured the term “curriculum.”

It’s interesting to note how much more often this term has appeared recently. Among students graduating from 2018 through 2021, the number of reviews mentioning “curriculum” hovered at around 65 each year. However, among students graduating in 2022 and 2023, “curriculum” was mentioned an average of 183 times—an increase of approximately 180 percent.

Although this data represents only a small portion of global GME experiences, it indicates that today’s students are developing more informed expectations for business and management programs, possibly because they are more aware of the demanding nature of the job market.

A Well-Rounded Curriculum

In the past few years, the trend has been for schools to offer more niche, focused programs. An October 2023 GMAC survey notes that while applications for business master’s programs dipped by about 3.4 percent, many specialized programs retained their popularity. For instance, more than half of Master of Finance programs saw growth in applications. It’s easy to infer that students want more specialization, not less, in their business programs—but is that really true?

In 2023, according to the same report, general programs such as the MBA saw a 4.9 drop in applications. However, just a year later, GMAC’s 2024 Prospective Students Survey showed that the two-year MBA is once again the most popular degree format among respondents. In addition, the Master of Management program has taken the number two spot behind the MBA, beating out specialized master’s programs focused on data analytics, international management, information technology, marketing, and accounting.

Recent reviews on EDUopinions also indicate that students are looking for robust, wide-ranging business and management programs as opposed to those that are more narrowly defined. When giving four- or five-star ratings, students frequently describe their programs as “comprehensive,” “well-rounded,” or “varied.” One possible conclusion is that students do want focused programs that will guide them along their career pathways—but they want that guidance to be underpinned by a broad curriculum that offers plenty of elective options.

Recent reviews indicate that students are looking for robust, wide-ranging business and management programs as opposed to those that are more narrowly defined.

A number of reviews reinforce that conclusion. For instance, a current student at a state school in the U.S. writes that taking part in its banking program has been a wonderful experience. “Lessons in the curriculum were highly diverse, and the lecturers were very supportive. I learned a lot and gained a deeper understanding of the purpose of each session thanks to the method they worked on, which included assignments, group projects, and individual duties.”

Another comment comes from a student who graduated in 2023 from a Master of Business Management program in the U.K. “The program’s curriculum was well-structured and comprehensive, covering a wide range of topics essential for a thorough understanding of modern business practices. The professors were not only experts in their respective fields but also approachable mentors who encouraged critical thinking and open dialogue.”

Rigorous, Practical, and Up-to-Date

In addition to giving high ratings to comprehensive programs that cover the whole field of business, students praise programs that include these components:

Rigorous teaching. Students consider a robust curriculum a high point of their programs when it goes hand-in-hand with powerful, engaging teaching methods employed by experienced instructors. An international business student at a school in Ireland notes that “the professors are great to work with and the course curriculum is challenging and rewarding.”

Practical elements. As evidenced by comments that refer to “company cooperation” or internship requirements, students value opportunities for experiential learning. As an example, a student in an international business program in Spain appreciates the fact that the curriculum provides students with the skills and knowledge they need to be “prepared for success in the workplace.”

On the other hand, reviewers tend to think that courses are irrelevant if they rely too much on theory or have no real-world application. A marketing student at a school in Poland expresses disappointment because the school’s curriculum is too theoretical and doesn’t reflect industry trends. The student recommends that anyone planning to attend the university should “make sure to have some internship gigs to get practical skills as well.”

An up-to-date curriculum. Respondents give one- and two-star reviews to programs with outmoded classes that don’t cover the latest knowledge in specific disciplines. It’s clear that students can tell when schools aren’t modernizing their curricula—and they believe this will negatively impact their future career progression.

A 2023 graduate of an accounting and finance program at a London-based university notes that some fellow students “have expressed a desire for more specialized and advanced topics, such as forensic accounting, sustainability reporting, and international accounting standards. Incorporating these areas into the program would better align it with current industry trends and prepare graduates for a broader range of career opportunities.”

Students value opportunities for experiential learning and tend to think that courses are irrelevant if they rely too much on theory or have no real-world application.

An experience that lives up to the school’s promise. For newly enrolled students, the most common concerns are whether the curriculum is well-structured or well-designed—and whether it matches the experience advertised by the institution. An international business student in Canada voices a typical complaint by saying, “My one problem is that it has so few classes compared to what they claim on the program curriculum on their website.”

What’s more, reviews indicate that learners form opinions very quickly. Consequently, business schools must make sure they do not provide an inaccurate overview of the curriculum early on, particularly if a course is taught over multiple years.

Three Takeaways

As business educators consider redesigning their programs, they would do well to keep in mind these three conclusions based on student perspectives:

Practical elements are important, but so is foundational theory. Most students want real-world experiences, and they notice when internships and company interactions are missing from their programs. At the same time, students are looking for programs that provide comprehensive coverage. Students will know if experiential learning isn’t underpinned with high-quality, relevant classroom teaching.

The curriculum should be designed as a whole. The program should be taught in a holistic manner that takes into account students’ broad goals and their plans for career progression. Students are acutely aware of the times a curriculum is incoherent, taught in a disjointed manner, or doesn’t achieve the aims of the program.

A challenging environment provides the biggest reward. Students have shown they are willing to recommend programs that offer intellectual engagement. In the classroom, students want to be challenged to think differently about foundational business theory. Consequently, business schools should ensure every piece of learning is accompanied by memorable, imaginative classroom experiences.

To prepare students for the unpredictable future of work, it’s a given that business schools will need to adapt their curricula. However, it’s vital that they accomplish this in ways that benefit current students and enable graduates to transform their careers.

Abigail Lister
Writer, EDUopinions
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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