Study Business in the Ivy League – Expert Advice


So, you want to study business in the Ivy League? If you want to major in business at an Ivy League university, you may need to broaden your horizons.

First, a bit of history study business in the Ivy League

The Ivy League universities are among the oldest in the country. Five of the eight are among the 10 oldest universities in the country:

  • Harvard – 1636
  • Yale – 1702
  • Penn – 1740
  • Princeton – 1746
  • Columbia – 1754

Brown and Dartmouth were founded a little bit later (in 1746 and 1769, respectively). Cornell is the outlier: it was started in 1846–almost a century and a half after Harvard. As we shall see, this is part of the reason that Cornell looks so very, very different from the other schools with which it plays football.

And that’s the key here: the “Ivy League” is a relatively recent creation. Eight schools got together and created a sports league. So the “league” in Ivy League has nothing to do with academics whatsoever. Like so much in America’s university system, sports is sort of the tail that wags the dog.

Check out this short video about studying business in the Ivy League.

A transcript of the video appears at the bottom of this post.

The liberal arts focus of the Ivy League

The traditional curricular focus of all the Ivy League schools harkens back to the traditional academic subjects that people like John Adams and Benjamin Franklin studied: philosophy, law, and theology. At the time, of course, “science” was more or less an outgrowth of philosophy, or the inquiry into knowledge. The same was true of mathematics: it was all sort of rolled into they study of the current state of mankind’s knowledge of the world.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that Europeans and Americans began thinking of teaching university courses that were directly relevant to both agriculture (where most Americans were employed at the time) and to the advances of the Industrial Age (and the rise of engineering as a discipline). Cornell, for example, still has a solid agricultural program, as well as a veterinary school. A large part of Cornell’s mission was (and still is, to an extent) to improve the agricultural yield of our farmers. (This was true of all the so-called “land grant” universities).

So it wasn’t until much later in our history that universities began teaching subjects that were directly related to economic development of the country and to the professional development of individuals. Prior to this, education at the Ivy League schools was limited to the economic and political elites. The subjects taught were considered most relevant to being an “educated person.” Graduates of the Ivies might very well go on to take their place (by birthright, mostly) in the upper class establishment of American society.

Today’s educational imperative?

Fast forward to today. The educational priorities of the American public have shifted. There are a lot of reasons for the shift.

  • College has become so expensive–especially at Ivy League institutions–that families are more conscious of the “return on investment”: what will be the short and long-term economic payoff of earning this degree?
  • A continuing national philosophy that is best expressed by the words of Calvin Coolidge: “the business of America is business.”
  • Majors like history, English, philosophy are now considered “useless” by most Americans. In other words, even elites are looking askance at the idea that these disciplines can train the mind, improve one’s ability to think analytically, and to tap into a knowledge of history and culture as a way to guide humanity forward.
  • Americans have an increasing skepticism about knowledge and elitism in general (even though the majority of our presidents and many of our political leaders are graduates of Ivy League institutions).

Today, the most popular and common major in American universities is business. Over half of Americans graduate with a business degree of some sort.

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Can you study business in the Ivy League?

The short answer is yes, if you go to one of two of the eight Ivy League schools.

Dartmouth, Brown, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia do not offer business majors to undergraduates. Of course some of these do offer graduate degrees of business (Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Columbia). But 6 of the 8 Ivies do not offer undergraduate majors in business. Two, however, do offer business for undergrads: Penn and Cornell.

Study business in the Ivy League at the University of Pennsylvania University of Pennsylvania logo

The Wharton School of Business at Penn offer degrees in business. Interested students submit an application direction to Wharton. While there are some joint programs that link liberal arts majors with business, there is not a lot of intellectual or curricular cross-over between Penn’s College of Arts and Sciences and the Wharton School.

It’s also important to note that Penn also has a School of Nursing and a School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

The Wharton School offers concentrations in the following:

  • Accounting
  • Behavioral Economics
  • Business Economics and Public Policy
  • Business Analytics
  • Environmental Management and Policy
  • Finance
  • Health Care Management and Policy
  • Legal Studies and Business Ethics
  • Management (with concentrations in Entrepreneurship & Innovation, Multinational Management, Organizational Effectiveness, and Strategic Management)
  • Marketing
  • Marketing and Communications
  • Marketing and Operations Management
  • Operations, Information, and Decisions (with concentrations in Decision Processes, Informational Systems, and Operations Management/Management Science)
  • Real Estate
  • Statistics

Each concentration above requires only four courses, so it’s easy to switch around or pursue more than one. Wharton also offers some “secondary concentrations,” meaning that a student chooses a main concentration above, and then can add one of the following areas to it:

  • Global Analysis
  • Managing Electronic Commerce
  • Retailing
  • Social Impact and Responsibility

Clearly Penn has a wide range of business offerings, which makes it even more attractive to students who want to get study business in the Ivy League.

Study business in the Ivy League at Cornell

Cornell is the other school at which you can study business in the Ivy League. Cornell now has the SC Johnson College of Business, which is a unification of two other programs at Cornell (the video above was created before this union had been consummated).

The first program is the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, which offers (naturally enough) a BS in Applied Economics and Management. And true to Cornell’s historical mission to serve the agricultural needs of the state of New York, the Dyson School is housed in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS). Despite it’s history and anomalous institutional structure, the curriculum at Dyson mirrors more or less what one would find at any college of business for undergrad. The core requirements are supplemented by at least one concentration.

The other alternative for studying business at Cornell is to zero in on a particular business–one in which Cornell has particular strength: hotel administration. Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration offers a BS in Hotel Administration. The degree requires a focus in one of three areas: Finance, Accounting and Real Estate (FARE), Hospitality Leadership (HOLD), or Services Marketing and Operations Management (SMOM).

Alternatives to Study Business in the Ivy League

If you decide not to attend either Penn’s Wharton School or Cornell’s Johnson School, then how else might you study business in the Ivy League? Here are some ideas.

Study economics

Perhaps the best alternative–academically speaking–if you want to study something somewhat related to business, then you could take up the “dismal science” of economics. In fact, a larger and larger proportion of Ivy League students are studying economics these days. I’m not saying that this is a positive development, but economics is definitely where the demand is these days.

Join business-oriented clubs and societies

Most of the Ivy League colleges have a variety of business-oriented activities on campus, from incubators for entrepreneurs, to investment and finance clubs, to marketing and communications. Look for these on the student activities pages of the college’s website.

Become a leader in any club or association

Becoming a business leader is about exercising leadership in a particular context. But leadership is something one can learn in a variety of contexts. So don’t pass up an opportunity to develop that leadership any way you can. Whether you lead groups of students in sports, in the arts, in community service, in religious organizations, or any other sort of club or association, you will be cultivating the sort of skills and habits that can make you a leader in the business world. And most clubs will need certain kinds of abilities, including accounting and management. So if you are particularly excited about those activities, step up and lead!

Is Business A Good Major? Students sitting back to back in a forest

Majoring in business…should you or shouldn’t you?

Let’s face it: everyone works in a business. Lawyers are in business. Doctors and dentists are in business. College counselors are in business. Non-profits should act like businesses in order to expand and grow. Even higher education has become a business. The overwhelming majority of Americans work in some sort of business.

Business is by far the most popular major because it seems to have a “real world” application. It provides helpful information about the world of business. It introduces students to the functions that businesses must have in order to survive: a good strategy, good management, solid accounting, effective marketing and sales strategies, well-crafted human resource functions, and the like. One could also learn about particular kinds of businesses: health care, the music industry, real estate, hotel and restaurants, and more.

A good business major could be very good preparation for the world of work. But the major–by itself–is probably not enough to get a student a high paying job. However, completing a college degree of any kind is a signal to future employers that the student has the staying power, the dedication, the commitment, to see a complex, multiyear project to its conclusion.

But is the book learning one does in an undergraduate fully prepare a young person to make significant contributions to an enterprise? Probably not. The reason is that most of the what one needs to be successful in a job is learned on the job. So if the business student is amplifying their classroom learning with internships and other real-world business experience (like maybe running a successful lawn mowing business, or being promoted to manager of an In-and-Out burger joint), then the classroom experience is not going to be enough to help the student walk into a high-paying, high-responsibility job. That college graduate is still going to have to start at the bottom rung of the professional ladder.

It’s also important to recognize that majoring in business is not necessarily the ticket to riches any more than a degree in, say, political science, French literature, or Japanese language might be.

Data that indicate the wisdom of majoring in business–or not

The website Payscale.com ranks majors according to their earning potential–on average. They gather a lot of data from real people who pursued particular majors and ask about their salaries. Obviously one’s earnings right out of college will be different from earnings 10 years later…so Payscale.com tracks this.

I have pulled some data from Payscale to illustrate that the assumption that a business major is going to make a graduate a ton of money. As it happens some business majors rank very poorly, while others are (on average!) better drivers of high salaries.

What’s also surprising is that some liberal arts majors actually are pretty good (on average!) in preparing a student to make a decent salary. What is not so surprising is that engineering is among the best majors in terms of future earnings (however, it’s a really tough major and a very small proportion of students will graduate with an engineering degree).

Here are some selected results from Payscale.com.

RANK Major Early career pay Mid-career pay 1 Petroleum Engineering $94,500 $176,900 3 Applied Economics and Management $58,900 $140,000 5 Political Economy $57,600 $136,200 8 Business Analysis $57,200 $133,200 11 Econometrics $60,100 $131,000 12 Public Accounting $56,400 $130,800 19 Chemical Engineering $72,800 $127,200 36 Foreign Affairs $49,900 $119,100 38 Jazz Studies $46,300 $119,000 39 Computational & Applied Mathematics $66,600 $118,700 46 Bioscience $47,900 $117,800 60 Computer Science (CS) $68,600 $114,700 67 Physics $60,700 $113,100 84 International Business & Finance $58,400 $109,800 92 Entrepreneurship & Marketing $46,800 $108,500 96 Economics $56,700 $107,800 97 Japanese Language $48,200 $107,500 112 Mathematics & Statistics $58,200 $106,100 138 Government $50,100 $102,100 151 Asian Studies $42,900 $100,500 168 Business Information Systems $58,800 $98,700 169 Finance $55,600 $98,600 174 Chinese Language $50,600 $97,900 180 Business Finance $53,900 $97,500 186 International Business $50,800 $96,900 186 International Business $50,800 $96,900 196 Real Estate $54,400 $95,800 201 German Studies $48,200 $94,900 224 Music Production & Engineering $42,200 $93,500 236 Business & Marketing $47,000 $92,100 280 Marketing $48,300 $89,700 280 Marketing $48,300 $89,700 308 Accounting $51,000 $88,000 308 Accounting $51,000 $88,000 310 Philosophy $47,000 $87,900 316 Management & Finance $51,400 $87,400 316 Management & Finance $51,400 $87,400 364 General Business $47,300 $83,800 403 Business Administration $48,500 $80,600 403 Business Administration $48,500 $80,600 405 Forensic Science $43,200 $80,500 692 Business & Healthcare Management $44,000 $63,300

The upshot is that one’s major is not the only–or even the most important–variable determining one’s professional and economic success in life. Many other variables also play a role.

Since this is a post about studying business in the Ivy League, it might be helpful to compare stats about majors with stats about particular schools attended. Perhaps one’s economic success is even more dependent on where you attended school?

Again drawing data from Payscale.com, we can pull early and mid-career salaries from a variety of different colleges and universities. These are aggregate data for all graduates of a particular college–including business majors (if that major exists…and as we have noted, only 2 of the 8 Ivy institutions offer business) and STEM majors. Because many STEM majors (particularly the engineers and applied mathematicians) make quite a lot of money, on average, Payscale.com helpfully indicates the percentage of STEM majors graduating from each school. (For ease of comparison, I generally did not include STEM-oriented schools like MIT, Georgia Tech, CalTech, and the rest; I did leave Harvey Mudd on the list, however, as I think it’s interesting that the #1 highest earning potential exists at a STEM-oriented liberal arts college).

University / College Type Early Career Mid-Career % STEM Degrees 1 Harvey Mudd College Engineering, Liberal Arts School, Private School $88,800 $158,200 85% 6 Harvard University Ivy League, Private School, Research University $74,800 $146,800 19% 7 Stanford University Engineering, Private School, Research University $79,000 $145,200 51% 15 Princeton University Ivy League, Private School, Research University $75,200 $139,400 48% 16 Yale University Ivy League, Private School, Research University $70,300 $138,300 22% 22 Santa Clara University Private School, Religious   $69,900 $134,700 29% 25 University of Pennsylvania Ivy League, Private School, Research University $72,800 $133,900 21% 29 University of California-Berkeley Research University, State School $70,700 $131,800 36% 30 Dartmouth College Ivy League, Private School, Research University $71,500 $130,900 35% 31 Colgate University Liberal Arts School, Private School   $68,400 $130,600 26% 36 Cornell University Ivy League, Private School, Research University   $70,100 $128,200 43% 37 Brown University Ivy League, Private School, Research University   $68,200 $127,600 43% 38 Williams College Liberal Arts School, Private School $67,500 $127,500 32% 39 Columbia University in the City of New York Ivy League, Private School, Research University   $71,400 $126,800 30% 54 University of Southern California Private School, Research University   $64,500 $120,600 23% 67 New York University Private School, Research University $63,100 $117,700 18% 77 Amherst College Liberal Arts School, Private School $63,800 $116,500 32% 83 Texas A & M University-College Station Research University, State School $60,600 $115,700 30% 95 University of Chicago Private School, Research University $64,000 $114,200 22% 112 University of Michigan-Ann Arbor Research University, State School $63,500 $112,200 38% 113 Bowdoin College Liberal Arts School, Private School $61,300 $112,000 37% 128 Middlebury College Liberal Arts School, Private School $60,400  $109,800  19% 169 Texas Tech University Research University, State School $56,800 $106,500 22% 177 Occidental College Liberal Arts School, Private School $56,300 $105,700 25% 194 Oregon State University Research University, State School $56,200 $104,800 34% 209 Kenyon College Liberal Arts School, Private School $55,000 $103,800 17% 223 University of Massachusetts-Amherst Research University, State School $57,400 $103,000 24% 225 Trinity University Private School, Religious $54,900 $102,900 27% 242 St Olaf College Liberal Arts School, Private School, Religious $54,100 $101,900 30% 244 Rutgers University-Newark Research University, State School $57,900 $101,800 11% 255 University of Puget Sound Liberal Arts School, Private School $54,200 $101,300 21%

What can we take from this selective presentation of the data? First, many liberal arts colleges (e.g., Colgate, Williams) fare pretty well in comparison to their university counterparts. Second, the percentage of STEM majors at a university can skew their entire averages: Stanford confers over half of its degrees to STEM majors . Third, keep in mind that while STEM majors are broken out of the data, business majors are not. Some of the schools on this list (like NYU) have significant number of business majors, while other (like Harvard) have none. Fourth, graduate of some schools (like Santa Clara University) have a surprisingly high average salary ranking–higher than many of the Ivies.

Finally, one can say–based on these numbers–that going to an Ivy League college is better (on average!) than going to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. But does the college one attend really matter? That’s a big question…and beyond the scope of this article.

Check out this short video about how to choose a college major.

Why you should not major in business

Jeffrey Selingo is a long-time observer of higher education. His op-ed in The Washington Post, entitled “Business is the most popular college major, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good choice,” brings up some good points. The piece is drawn from his book, There is Life After College–which I highly recommend. Selingo talks at length about these points in his article, but I wanted to bring up a few of them here as well.

  • Keep in mind that virtually everyone works in some form of business, one way or another. Even those who majored in gender studies or art history are making money in some sort of business venture. Even if you don’t want to major in business, just remember this fundamental truth:  everything is business.
  • Selingo pointed out that “not all business majors are created equal in the job market;” that is, there are some fields under the umbrella of “business majors” that are viewed more favorably than others. Math-focused business majors like accounting and finance may be “better” than degrees in marketing or general business.
  • The best advice is to choose a major based on what will constantly challenge you.
  • Adults often say that students should choose a major based on what they’re passionate about. But it’s difficult to know when you’re starting college what you will truly be passionate about for the rest of your life.
  • Consider majors in which you will get the best grades. If you’re thinking about graduate school, your college GPA will be a factor.
  • Skill development, not your college major, has the largest impact on your potential future salary. While your major is one way to build skills, you might consider other ways to build skills employers want. For example, all employers want people who can write well, work well in teams, and give outstanding presentations. So, for example, business majors may want to take some literature or history courses to hone their writing skills. Similarly, English or history majors may want to take courses in economics, entrepreneurism, marketing, or accounting.  Leading a team or a club or other activity might also be important to demonstrate that you have the team-building and leadership skill essential to do the job.
  • The college one attends can have as much importance —or more—in one’s future employability and salary potential. Keep in mind that 75% of the Ivy League schools, for example, do not offer undergraduate business majors. But plenty of their alumni are leaders in the business community.
Should you study business in the Ivy League–or anywhere else?

The answer to this question begins with the reminder that only two of the eight Ivies offer business. So in some sense “Ivy League” and “business” don’t really mix. But how about if we broaden the question–should you study business anywhere?

The answer is not clear from the evidence and data. It all depends. It depends on your conception of what college is all about. Is it supposed to be a practical training ground for a career, or is it more about training your brain and getting a broad understanding of the world? Your decision to major in business may depend on your interests, too: if you have no interest in more theoretical, academic subjects, then a more concrete, practical degree may be best.

But there are no certainties here. A business major–by itself–will not make you more money than that philosophy major across the dormitory hall from you. Similarly, going to an Ivy League school will not necessarily make you more money than if you went to a liberal arts college or a state school. Averages like the ones in the tables above can only tell us so much. They are not indicative of your potential success. They should not determine your interests and they definitely do not reflect your aptitudes or abilities.

As you decide what to major in, think about what keeps you engaged, what interests, you, and where your abilities are the strongest. Also remember that no matter what field you go into in today’s economy, you will be “in business.” At some point you’ll probably have to learn some of the fundamentals of business. Maybe you’ll learn them in college. Maybe you’ll even learn them in the Ivy League. Or somewhere else.

But to put it in Yoda speak, “learn you will.”

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study business in the Ivy League Study Business in the Ivy League: Video Transcript

Hi, this is Mark Montgomery coming at you with more Great College Advice, and today we’re going to talk about studying business in the Ivy League.

So when students come to me and say, “I want to study business in the Ivy League,” the first thing I tell them is we have to get straight on a couple things. First, which is more important to you? Getting into the Ivy League, or studying business? Because the reality is that there are eight Ivy League institutions, all of them very different, and only two out of the eight offer business as an undergraduate major. Now, the others, you could study economics, you could study psychology, you could study biology, you could study pretty much anything else within the usual suspects of majors. But no business. No business. Harvard Graduate School of Business, yes, that’s for graduate students. The Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, graduate students. The School of Management at Yale, graduate students.

If you want to study undergraduate business, only two places you can do that. The first is the University of Pennsylvania or Penn, that’s the Wharton School of Business and it offers both graduate degrees and undergraduate degrees. My partner and fellow counselor here at Great College Advice, Andrea Aronson, is a graduate of the Wharton School of Business, but she was a MBA student, not an undergraduate student. She was a classmate of mine at Dartmouth. So you can study business at the graduate level or undergraduate level, but at the undergraduate level within the Ivy League, two places, Penn number one.

What’s the second? Cornell. Cornell offers a degree in business. It’s actually at the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. Or you can study, if you have a special interest in the hotel industry or the hospitality industry, you could study at the School of Hotel Administration. Now, Cornell is making some changes, Cornell is actually going to create, they announced just recently, they’re going to create a college of business and bring these two schools together, along with the graduate school of business, and create a college of business. So that’s a new thing at Cornell. Until now it’s been in, well, we won’t get into that because the future is really the college of business.

So your two choices in the Ivy League are Cornell and Penn. So what’s your priority? Getting into the Ivy League and studying in the Ivy League, or is it to study business? If it’s to study business, well of course, you can apply to Penn, you can apply to Cornell, and then you can find other great business schools in the United States where you can apply and perhaps pursue your interest in studying business at the undergraduate level.

If, on the other hand, you think to yourself, “Well, I really prefer to go one of these institutions, I don’t really care that much about what I major in, I’m not that dedicated to studying business,” well, then you can really open up your mind to a lot of other possibilities about studying business, or about the path to being in business after you graduate from whatever college you go to. Because the reality in America, and the reality, actually, the planet over, is that everybody is in business. I don’t care if you’re a farmer, you’re in business. I don’t care if you’re a doctor, my gosh, in the United States, medical industry, it’s a huge business, it’s not something people do out of the goodness of their hearts, everybody’s getting paid and is run by big corporations. Even colleges, I’ve talked about this before, colleges are businesses. So you know what? No matter what you do with your life, you’re going to be in business.

So the question is rather, what do you want to study as an undergraduate? And then what steps will you take to prepare yourself for the reality that you will be in the world of work, in the world of business upon graduation? So all of us, even those of us crazy people like me, I studied religion, I’m in business. Andrea, my colleague, she studied Russian as an undergraduate and she went to Wharton. You know, we’re in business. Everybody’s in business.

So you need to think about what is most important to you. Is business education, getting that bachelor’s of business administration, the most important thing? Then you’ve got choices. But only two within the Ivy League. Otherwise, if you are thinking, “No, I want to study pretty much anything, I don’t really care,” or “I have particular interests,” then have confidence to go study those things and then to also figure out ways in which you can be really ready and have the skills you need to be in business. And if you need some help thinking about it, puzzling this through, give me a call, this is the kind of thing I help my students with on a daily basis.

So thanks for listening and subscribe to our channel and I hope to see you again soon.

Great College Advice offers college admissions advice to high school students and their families around the country and around the world. We help students look differently at college admissions and navigate the changing educational landscape. We give our students a positive and insightful college planning experience with long-lasting effects. Because it’s not just about college—it’s about your life’s journey.

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