Who wants to be a millionaire?

As Wall Street tumbled, so did enrolment in business schools
Who wants to be a millionaire?
Photograph by Roger Lemoyne

There’s nothing like the near collapse of Wall Street to turn students off a career in business. According to a recent survey of U.S. freshmen, the global economic downturn, brought on by the misdeeds of some of the nation’s most well-established financial institutions, may be causing many to consider other options. UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) found that the percentage of students who planned to major in business dropped from 16.8 in 2008 to 14.4 in 2009—the lowest level in 35 years.

Though the year-over-year decline isn’t staggering, “it is significant,” according to Linda DeAngelo, one of the report’s authors. There have been several recessions since the institute did its first survey more than 40 years ago, but “this is the first time we’ve seen this type of drop,” says DeAngelo. (Interest peaked in 1987—the year of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street—when more than a quarter of respondents were eyeing a business major.) Of all the areas of focus in the survey under the umbrella of business, the most significant drop was in general business administration—an indication, says DeAngelo, “that business is not looking generally as appealing as it once did.”

While comparable data isn’t available for Canada, there is some indication of a similar trend: by September 2009, the Ontario Universities’ Application Centre had received 9.8 per cent fewer applications to business programs from high school graduates than the same time the previous year. Though interest in the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario hasn’t waned, faculty director Darren Meister says students are now more conscious of keeping doors open. These days, he says, those who pursue business do so because it’s what they truly want, with the understanding that “business school is not a guarantee of riches.”