Rethinking Ross: The unglamorous realities of a business school education
Kendall Cortez was immediately sold on what he was getting into.
The sophomore was just getting settled in at orientation as a new member of the Ross School of Business, and was being introduced to his orientation group’s assignment. The idea was to use a competition to bring the section together while introducing principles of business to the newly admitted students. The goal: create a Kickstarter for a business that wanted to supply computers to underprivileged youth in Detroit.
Cortez, who grew up in a lower-income Detroit family, applied to the Business School for social change and effective community action just like this. He was a business student for less than a day, and he was already living his dream.
But almost as quickly as he was sold on the project, he realized that the dream was going to have to wait. There were roughly 85 other students in his group, and he got a taste of what happens when that many high-minded and motivated individuals are asked to collaborate and compete.
“As we start working and separating ourselves into teams, you can see the alpha dog-ness in a lot of people,” Cortez said. “I like to be around a pretty diverse group, people who are knowledgeable and socially conscious, so I’m used to kind of stepping back, give your idea, and come to some consensus. But a lot of people came in feeling like they had the idea, they had to take charge.
“Everybody is trying to take over and rule this room. That’s really not how to get things done, so I just immediately was sensing trouble. At first, I just tried to kind of bring the group together and even try to take a leadership role until I realized that no one was listening, everyone has their own opinion, nobody is willing to listen to anybody else’s thoughts.”
Cortez could tell right away that it was trouble. Just a few rooms over, fellow Business sophomore Emily Yerington was struggling through a very similar experience.
“I really didn’t know what to expect, so I was trying to be open-minded about it going in,” she said. “What ended up happening was that it became a shouting contest and it was actually very much male-dominated. That was the only experience I’ve ever had where I felt like I was at a disadvantage for being a girl.
“The only people that were getting their voices heard were these guys and most of them were bigger and almost scary.”
It’s no secret that the Ross School of Business is an elite institution. It regularly ranks among the top five undergraduate business schools in the world, and 92 percent of its students have a job offer within six months of graduation. Last year, 1,139 freshman — 19 percent of the University’s class of 2017 — applied to the Business School, a number that has continued to grow year after year. About 400 students were admitted at the end of their freshman year — accompanying about 100 pre-admitted students — to make up the entering sophomore class.
But if the Business School is so popular and successful, why do students want to leave? Both Yerington and Cortez left the Business School after their first semester, and roughly 3 percent of students drop the program each semester.
Though the magnitude of the dissatisfaction will vary, stories of herd mentality, arrogance and a lack of a voice inside the Business School leave many dismayed and even upset with their collegiate path.
“There is a lot of ‘Oh my god, I hate this place. I’m just here because I know I’m going to get a job,’" Cortez said. “When I decided to drop, I heard a lot of ‘Kendall, that takes so much courage, I wish I had dropped.’ There’s definitely a sense within the Business School that people who are in it love to hate it.”
Always at the forefront of academic prestige and success, the school now finds itself at the forefront of a much less desirable position. The negative internal and external perceptions of the Business School are mounting, and the school must find a way to respond.
For whatever reason, many students love to hate the Business School.
Some people dislike the Business School for the building, already critiqued as overly extravagant with expansions on the way. Others dislike the seemingly endless supply of funds for students, artwork, and — of course — moving trees. Others still disapprove of the exclusionary culture, one in which students try to separate themselves from the remainder of the student body, with exclusive classes, recruiting opportunities, and even a separate name.
For Lynn Wooten, the associate dean for undergraduate programs, however, it’s the internal dissatisfaction that’s most problematic. A longtime researcher in strategy, management, and organizational behavior, Wooten knows the dangers of these competition-filled communities.
“We try to reach out to every student and to practice what we preach with this notion of self-authorship and finding your passion,” she said. “But no matter how much we say it, research says that students are going to follow their peers. You can come in wanting to use business for social change, but then you see everyone is doing finance. I’ve heard some students say they feel marginalized, and then they ultimately went into finance because they felt a big push to do so.”
In total, around 40 percent of the Business School students go into finance, making it far and away the most popular component of business, though Wooten said there was similar peer pressure felt to go into accounting and consulting as well.
Both Cortez and Yerington applied to the Business School with ambitions surrounding social change, but both felt that it wasn’t the peers that did the funneling into finance — it was the coursework structure. Beginning a business curriculum with quantitative and foreign concepts of accounting and business analytics only furthered the bitter taste, Yerington said.
“I was never mainstream business, which is a vast majority of what Ross is.” Yerington said. “As much as they pretend that they aren’t about that, that’s exactly what they are. (The administrators and faculty) act as if they want to make us all individuals who are going to go out and change the world, but they make it so all of our resumes look exactly the same, our interviews are trained to be exactly the same way, and basically they just funnel you into paths and you’re going to be a little clone with everyone else.”
Added Cortez: “They need to do a better job of letting kids know that there’s more to business than three fields … Yes, these are the most popular, but there’s a slew of other things that you can do and be happy doing with a business degree.”
This narrow focus goes with what Wooten describes as a herd mentality — a process of assimilation and conformity that the dean sees as the school’s greatest flaw. There are a number of factors that go into this practice, but Wooten believes the dynamic is already in place before the students enter the Business School.
With this year’s introduction of a more flexible curriculum that will, for the first time, allow students to study abroad during the academic year beginning next year, along with enhanced programs to ensure a thriving culture and positive influences, Wooten said she feels that the next two years will be a major step for the Business School to increase student happiness.
However, admittance and core classes begin in sophomore year, which means most students may already be a part of communities on campus. This may narrow students’ focus both academically and socially, hindering the influence of added programs.
“The question becomes, how do we get people to find where they can thrive and fit into the culture, and how do we change the perception of the culture to make everyone feel welcome?” Wooten said. “That involves trying to get people to know each other better through teamwork and group projects.
The focus on technical skills and quantitative specialization is a growing trend among most business schools, but, according to a 2012 report by The Wall Street Journal, employers don’t agree with this trend.
Employers need “flexible thinkers with innovative ideas and a broad knowledge base derived from exposure to multiple disciplines,” but don’t find it in the business world because “the undergraduate degrees focus too much on the nuts and bolts of finance and accounting and don't develop enough critical thinking and problem-solving skills through long essays, in-class debates and other hallmarks of liberal-arts courses,” the article read.
Around the same time that the report came out, Wooten and fellow Business School administrators were beginning to finalize plans to join a growing number of business programs with redesigned curriculums. The changes are only beginning to take place, but it was clear from the start what the goals were.
Through revised curriculum, supplemental programs and an enhanced support staff, Wooten and the rest of the administrators are looking toward customization and a sense of purpose for all 500 students in each grade level.
“What keeps me up at night is thinking about how I can make sure Ross is the best business school and transformational experience for everyone,” Wooten said. “If I think about the changes I want to make, I want to have engaged learning experiences inside and outside of the classroom.”
The new design increased the number of business classes — something Wooten said had to be done to keep up with other schools — but also increased flexibility. For the first time, business undergrads are able to study abroad and now have the opportunity to schedule core classes to their choosing.
But Wooten’s ultimate goal is to increase student happiness while continuing the same practices that make the Business School one of the world’s premier business programs each year.
Cortez watched in dismay as his fellow students took over the project at orientation. He didn’t mind taking a backseat, but couldn’t quite grasp just how misguided the self-appointed drivers were. With the task of providing computers to Detroit youth, Cortez knew right away that this was a far cry from the environment of his roots.
“A lot of people weren’t sensitive to Detroiters, Detroit kids,” Cortez said. “A lot of words or ideas that were problematic to me. ‘We have to save them, they’re not advanced enough,’ and as a native Detroiter, I’m just thinking ‘Really?’ There was just a lot of problematic stuff that I took issue with right away, and I could already tell that the environment was going to be different.”
There are plenty of opportunities for the Business School to grow, but perhaps none are as measurable as the lack in diversity in the program. In the most recent cohort of accepted students, just 4 percent of the Business School bachelor’s degree program identified as an underrepresented minority. More remarkable is that that number is actually an improvement from each of the last two years.
For Cortez, who is Black, this is far from ideal.
“There’s definitely some added pressure,” he said. “Especially when I was first thinking about leaving Ross. I remember thinking, am I letting everyone down by leaving? What message does that send to everyone that helped get me there or might be trying to follow me? Is that a slap in the face?”
Katrina Vegter, the school’s academic advising director, and Business School adviser Matthew Turner said this is a problem that goes beyond numbers and takes time and flexibility to solve.
“We look at and meet every student individually,” Turner said. “We don’t group students together, so no one’s a minority when they meet with us. So we meet with students and let them know, ‘No, this is where you should be, there’s a place for you to be here.’ ”
Added Vegter: “I’ve had female students come in and say that all the male members of their group expected her to be the secretary and take notes. So what are you going to say to them if that comes up again, what steps need to be taken? Because some of these problems aren’t going to leave once you get out in the workforce either. I think we play that role of helping students effect change, but those are tough issues to overcome, as we’re seeing nationwide.”
Programs enforcing awareness and inclusivity are put into place each year, but Cortez feels that having a dominant majority is a problem that can’t necessarily be solved, only improved upon.
“I don’t know if there’s anything the school itself can do about that. How do you go about making sure that everybody (accepted to) Ross has the right motives? All you can do is read two (application) essays.”
Just as the Business School’s heavy emphasis on group projects makes a cohesive culture beneficial for students, the school’s notorious curve can often turn students against each other.
With participation, homework, assignments, projects, and exams all held to a curve or set standard, students are constantly competing with one another, making buy-in on programs to develop cohesion a tough sell.
“There are a lot of resources there already that students might not really come to,” Vegter said. “One of the challenges we face is teasing out what the student’s needs and finding out what is going to be the right combination of clubs and programs and classes to get the results. But we find things to get drowned out by the competition of it all.”
Even though core business classes are curved to a B+ average, among the highest such curves at the University, Yerington felt that the lack of control over your own destiny can take a toll, especially when grades can vary wildly and not be made known until the very end of the semester.
“I feel like if a teacher is doing their job, it should be possible for everybody to succeed,” Yerington said. “Even though they curve it high, it’s just a bad mentality when you’re not worried about how much you’re learning, you’re worried about how you’re doing compared to everyone else.”
Added Turner: “The curve is a blessing and a curse. In the quantitative classes, most students find it awesome, but in qualitative classes, the scores become very tight. But again, it’s one of those things that out in the world, it’s something as simple as a small typo that can be the difference in who gets the job, so they’re kind of life lessons.”
The real-world application is what Turner believes is the school’s greatest strength, but with students barely into adulthood with no idea of what they want to do for the rest of their life, is there a limit?
Cortez felt that there was. An explorative learner who’s now majoring in history and ecology, Cortez felt the core classes — which include accounting and business analytics in the first semester — weren’t conducive to finding one’s passion in business. Cortez could tell it was a problem in the classes, where the majority of students appeared bored, confused or annoyed at the material.
When weighing the idea of dropping, however, Cortez suddenly found himself standing out with his beliefs.
“I remember when I was thinking about leaving, people came up to me and said ‘You are crazy. I don’t really like it either, but you have to stay. This is great, this is how you’re going to get a job.’ ” he said. “I’m thinking about how that’s great, but I’m not going to like myself.”
“If your motives aren’t right, like mine weren’t — I saw dollar signs when I saw Ross, not a real institution that can help me change things — it’s going to add up quickly,” he added.
Though Cortez and Yerington are among a small minority of students who leave the program, the school’s staff notice. They also notice that, despite the favorable job and compensation prospects, business majors are regularly reported as among the least happy in school and the workplace nationwide. They notice the complaints from current students too, and constantly look to keep up with the increasingly aware and strong-willed student voice.
“I think the student population is by its nature a group that’s really tough on us, constantly asking the hard questions,” Vegter said. “Why are we doing things this way? Why are we doing this? Has it always been this way? Can we do something differently? Students push us to think critically and keep up and strive to create new things and ideas.”
With the help of the Ross Undergraduate Student Advisory Board, a council of students who report feedback from students on curriculum, programs and more, the Business School has undergone a series of changes, with more on the way.
The new curriculum, which was piloted by this year’s sophomores, includes a sophomore seminar, increased flexibility in what classes to take and when and supplemental programs to ensure a sense of purpose throughout their three years.
Next year’s incoming class can anticipate smaller class and orientation sizes, additional programs on diversity in the workplace, and an increased solicitation of feedback to ensure satisfaction for years to come.
“We try to get students to think about business as not a job, but as a profession, a societal entity that has the potential to make a positive difference,” Wooten said. “People are happy when they find jobs that play to their strengths and also like who they’re working for and what they’re doing.”
“Let’s create this roadmap, create this passion, let’s combine this business degree with other education and find a way to fulfill that passion in the short term and the long term and get them to see that potential that you have with that business degree.”