How to Choose a Business Degree

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Almost 20% of all college degrees awarded in the U.S. are business degrees. That makes business the most popular major by far.

But if you’ve been looking into starting a business degree, you’ve already learned: it’s not as simple as deciding to study “business.” That’s like saying you want to major in science.

Any given school probably has at least five different kinds of business degrees—and maybe as many as 20. Some schools will have an umbrella degree category, like a bachelor in business administration or business management, with concentrations and specializations in particular fields of business. Others build entire degrees around each field, such as accounting, finance, marketing, and human resource management.

And it’s completely up to you to make this career-defining choice. No pressure.

On top of choosing a field, you might also have to choose between a bachelor of arts and a bachelor of science. (That part is pretty easy though.)

Since there are so many kinds of business degrees, and there are so many people getting business degrees, it’s really important that you make an informed decision. You don’t want to lump yourself in with the mass of general business majors.

I guess that’s our first piece of advice: don’t choose a general business degree. Specialize. While it does force you to make bigger decisions earlier on, it really helps you stand out, and it doesn’t necessarily lock you into one particular role. (Once you get your foot in the door with a job, a career in business is pretty malleable.)

Whether you’re feeling overwhelmed by choices or excited by the possibilities, we’re here to help you make the decision that’s right for you. We’ll walk you through the kinds of degrees you can choose from and some of the things you’ll have to consider along the way.

For starters, let’s talk about this whole BBA vs. BBM thing.

What’s the difference between a BBA and a BBM?

Here’s the short answer: nothing. A bachelor’s degree in business administration is virtually the same as a bachelor’s degree in business management. You’ll take the same classes. You’ll have the same options. And it’ll look the same on paper (well, except for that last letter).

Now for the long answer. You might hear that they’re different. You might hear that a BBM offers specializations, and that a BBA does not. Or that a BBM gets into the more technical fields within business, like accounting and finance. Or that a BBA is better for people who want to pursue graduate studies.

The reality is that no distinctions between a BBM and a BBA are universally true for all schools and programs.

BBAs offer specializations, too. BBAs can cover the same subjects as a BBM, and some BBMs may not cover those subjects as intensely. And BBMs can give you the same great foundation for an MBA. If you compare any given BBM with any given BBA, you’re bound to find some differences—just as you would if you compared two BBAs or two BBMs.

Every school may have their own philosophical reasons for offering one degree over the other, or their own distinctions between the two programs.

So what does this all mean for you? It means don’t worry about it. Much like choosing between a bachelor of science and a bachelor of arts, this is hardly the most important decision you’ll make in your academic career. Also like choosing between a BS and a BA, if you’re already enrolled in a school, it’s probably not a choice you’ll even have to make. Most schools offer either a BBM or a BBA. And if they offer both, just take some time to compare the actual courses in the program, specialization options, internship and networking opportunities, and make your decision based on what matters to you.

Whether you’re already at school and finally settling on a major (or changing majors, which is OK, too), or you’re still not sure what college you want to go to, there’s one decision you should focus on: which field of business do you want to study?

Let’s look at each kind of degree, what careers they lead to, and what kind of person they’re a good fit for.

23 common types of bachelor in business degrees

There are definitely more than 23 types of business degrees, but these are some of the most common options you’ll encounter. Other degrees are likely have a lot of overlap with one of these, or are even subfields of these subjects. You may also find that some of the more obscure or specialized degrees are specific to a particular job.

We’ll give you some at-a-glance things to think about with each degree type, including jobs it could lead to, salary range (based on PayScale.com), job growth prospects (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) and other career related information. We’ll also tell you a little about the subjects each degree likely includes, and what it takes to successfully complete a degree in that field.

We’ll get into this a little more below, but it’s worth noting: at most schools, all business degrees will share a lot of common curriculum. You’ll probably study some combination of accounting, finance, marketing, economics, business law, management, and information systems regardless of which business degree you choose. Depending on the school, the specific field you choose may only actually comprise about 30 credits—just a handful of classes—with a foundation in general business classes that all business majors need to have a basic grasp of.

All this to say, you aren’t missing out on most of what a general business degree gives you by choosing a more specialized degree. And if you choose a general degree, you’re missing a credential and expertise that could really make your resume stand out.

Management degree

Potential careers: administrative assistant, business analyst, manager

Average starting salary: about $35,000 per year

Projected job growth rate: 6%

Things you’ll learn about:

  • Business management/administration
  • Human resources
  • Leadership development
  • Organizational behavior
  • Basics of all things business

One of the main reasons people choose to get a degree in business is because they want to “be a boss” someday. If that’s you, management might be the right course of study, but you should know: a degree in management is a lot like a general business degree. You’re getting a rudimentary education in the main areas of business—nobody wants a boss who doesn’t understand how business works—and a solid background in how the pieces fit together to keep organizations functioning. Managers need to get the big picture better than anyone else.

And you can do that without getting a degree in management.

Even with a bachelor’s degree in management, in most cases, you’ll still need experience before you can actually become a manager. This could be part of the reason why the average starting salary for someone with this degree is lower than some of the more specialized degrees. You may find that in some workplaces, it’s more desirable for a manager to have a degree in that specific industry—such as a marketing manager with a degree in marketing.

The overall job growth rate for management positions is 6%, which is average. However, there’s a wide range of types of managers, and the job growth rate (and average salary) varies a lot from industry to industry. If you still want a degree in management, you should look into the specialization options available at your school, and try to craft your degree to become a manager in a particular field.

Marketing degree

Potential careers: marketing assistant, social media manager, product manager, marketer

Average starting salary: about $40,000 per year

Projected job growth rate: 9%

Things you’ll learn about:

  • Consumer behavior
  • Marketing channels
  • Branding
  • Analytics
  • Social media marketing
  • Pricing

If you want a career in marketing, you don’t need to go to college for it.

I have a career in marketing, and you know what I studied in college? English literature. You know where I learned everything I know about marketing? Blogs—and other marketers.

The reality is that being a marketer means you never stop being a student. And the best teachers you’ll ever have are the people who are succeeding in and shaping the industry right now. There are literally thousands of people, organizations, tools, and blogs that can teach you everything that matters in marketing (which changes all the time, by the way). Here are just a few we recommend:

This isn’t to say you don’t want a degree of some kind. Some companies or positions may require a degree, even if you already have the experience and expertise (it’s really lame when they do though). And sometimes your school’s marketing program provides valuable internships and placement opportunities that make it more worthwhile.

But you  can always get a degree in another subject and leverage that to launch your marketing career. If this is an industry that excites you, you can dive into it right now for free.

To get your foot in the door with an entry level marketing position, you can get the skills and expertise you need to make an impact without putting a dent in your bank account. And your ability to learn from industry trends and tools—not a college degree—is what will ultimately propel your marketing career to the next level.

Accounting degree

Potential careers: accounting clerk, accountant, auditor, budget analyst

Average starting salary: about $40,000 per year

Projected job growth rate: 11%

Things you’ll learn about:

  • Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP)
  • International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS)
  • Auditing
  • Accounting information systems
  • Reporting

Accounting is often referred to as “the language of business.” This is a valuable specialized degree, but it’s a common myth that accounting is essentially “business calculus.”

One professor at Washington State University had this to say to nervous accounting students:

“Most math in accounting is for about fourth grade level. We add, subtract, multiply, divide, maybe a little percent. In fact, all of our students take their exams using only four-function calculators. But you do have to not be afraid of numbers. As long as the numbers are logical, the basic math is easy.”

And she’d been teaching accounting for over 30 years. Accounting is about having an eye for details, so even if math isn’t your strong suit, you can still learn how to translate financial data to help people make important decisions. If that interests you, this is a field that’s projected to grow almost twice as fast as the average job growth rate. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job growth for accountants and auditors is closely tied to the health of the overall economy.

Note: a number of accounting professions require special certifications beyond a bachelor’s degree, such as a certified public accountant (CPA), certified management accountant (CMA), etc. (Here’s a longer list of specialized accounting certifications.)

Economics degree

Potential careers: financial analyst, marketer, business consultant, actuary

Average starting salary: about $40,000 per year

Projected job growth rate: 6%

Things you’ll learn about:

  • Microeconomics
  • Macroeconomics
  • Quantitative research
  • Imperfect competition
  • Pricing theory

Economics is a valuable major, but unless you’re getting a master’s or a PhD, you probably shouldn’t expect to become a professional “economist.” (You can still be a philosophical one, though.) The principles of economics spill over into every facet of every industry. There are even books about how economics explains everything.

One economist explains the versatility of an economics degree this way:

“At the corporate headquarters of a fast food company, an analyst tracks sales, costs and profits at their stores. If sales have increased, she drills down to determine whether more people are eating at their stores, or if the average sale is higher, or some combination of the two. That will impact marketing decisions. She’ll track costs. If food costs are up, is the price of food going up, or is spoilage increasing? She does this regionally, as well as compares her chain’s numbers with national economic data.”

(This is a great major for anyone considering a marketing degree.)

Finance degree

Potential careers: financial analyst, financial advisor, actuary, broker, banker

Average starting salary: about $39,000 per year

Projected job growth rate: 12%

Things you’ll learn about:

  • Financial reporting
  • Risk management and insurance
  • Financial planning
  • Financial analysis

Finance and accounting are two sides of the same coin. The curriculum giant, Peterson’s defines the difference this way: “finance is about actually shifting or manipulating money, while accounting is about tracking those kinds of manipulations.” At the same time, they concede that this difference isn’t strictly followed, and some schools may blend the two fields into either accounting or finance. So the coin thing isn’t just a bad pun—it’s a pretty apt metaphor.

Finance equips you to understand the core of the business world. That’s why nearly every business degree requires at least one foundational course in finance. Without knowing how to properly allocate funds, businesses flounder. Becoming an expert in this field gives you the tools to accurately forecast every endeavor your organization pursues.

If you’re the kind of person who sits in math class and thinks, “When am I ever going to use this?” skip this degree. Because this is where. And while I don’t think any finance professors will say this is fourth grade math, it sounds like the math involved in finance isn’t especially complicated, either. That being said, you should probably at least somewhat enjoy math if you’re going to make a career out of it.

Human resource management degree

Potential careers: human resource manager, employee relations manager, compensation analyst

Average salary: about $37,000 per year

Projected job growth rate: 9%

Things you’ll learn about:

  • Business law/ethics
  • Staffing
  • Employee development
  • Compensation

Human resource experts primarily serve two key functions in an organization:

  1. Advocate for the rights and wellbeing of employees
  2. Help organizations get the best work from their employees

If you consider yourself “a people person” this is a great field for you. With a background in HRM, you’ll be well suited for a role in leadership or administration, where you’ll help organizations steward their greatest resource: people.

But being a people-person can only take you so far. You’ll probably need to get a degree or concentration in HRM to enter this field. Colorado State University says that only about 5% of human resource managers lack a bachelor’s degree (see their HRM infographic).

General business degree

Potential careers: the job you have now, but a little better

Average salary: generally less

Projected job growth rate: average

Things you’ll learn about:

  • Accounting
  • Finance
  • Economics
  • Marketing
  • Business law
  • Management
  • Basics of all things business

Just don’t pursue this. Please. Or if you do, at least choose a concentration or a minor, too.

Other business degrees

Like I said before, this isn’t a comprehensive list of business degrees. There are many, many more. Here are some options you’re bound to see:

  • Advertising
  • Business analytics
  • Statistics
  • Operations
  • Tourism
  • Hospitality
  • Public relations
  • Sustainability
  • E-Commerce
  • Organizational leadership
  • Project management
  • International business
  • Manufacturing and supply chain management

More business degrees we don’t recommend

Like marketing, management, and general business, there are some other business degrees that really just aren’t worth spending thousands of dollars on. And again, that doesn’t mean it isn’t still worth it to get a degree of some kind if you want a good job in that field, it just means we don’t recommend majoring in that subject.

Here are a couple degrees we suggest you pass on:

  • Management information systems.
    An MIS program isn’t going to give you the programming expertise of a computer science degree or the business expertise of another business degree, so you’re really better off choosing one or the other.
  • Entrepreneurship.
    You’ll learn more about starting a business from talking with real-life business owners—or by actually starting a business yourself.
  • Sales.
    Salespeople sell. There are plenty of sales jobs in the world: find an entry-level sales job, watch other sales people, and read books on sales. You don’t need to spend four years studying for exams—you need practice.

Now that you’re more familiar with some of the options, how do you actually decide on one?

Which business degree is right for me?

You might’ve thought your work was done when you started telling people you were majoring in business, but now you have to make your real choice. This is about deciding on a career, not just getting people off your back when they ask what you’re doing with your life. (It’s OK, we’ve all been there.)

It’s pretty daunting to look at all of the possible business degrees you could choose, but there are some basic things you can do to narrow your options and find the right fit.

If you’re already attending a school, and you’ve already paid for classes, congratulations! Your list is already shorter. Unless there’s another accredited business school you really want to transfer to, stick with the choices your school gives you.

Think of things you’d like to do

The #1 best way to make sure you pick the right business degree is to start with a particular job (or, ideally, a whole lot of jobs) you’d like to have.

Hopefully, you’ll do this by starting with a list of things you enjoy doing, not a list of the highest-paying jobs in business. Money is a powerful motivator, but a degree is a big commitment, and a career is an even bigger one. If you’re going to do something for the rest of your life, it should probably be something you like doing, not just something you don’t mind.

It’s OK if we disagree on that though. For all I know, a big paycheck could be what enables you to pursue the things you really love.

What matters most to you in a job?

Only you can decide what’s most important to you. Maybe it is money. Maybe it’s feeling like you’re the best at something. Or at least good at it. Or maybe you want your job to feel like everything in your life has been leading up to your career, and that it’s the perfect intersection of your greatest strengths and the world’s greatest need.

I don’t know. I’m not you.

Whatever you decide is most important, that should play a big role as you build your list of potential jobs.

Here are some questions you might want to ask yourself:

Do you want a job with more freedom, or more structure? Some professions are more likely to have remote positions (like marketing and advertising), or may have more opportunities to make lateral career moves. Structure can be really healthy, too, because you know exactly what’s expected of you at work.

Do you want to travel for work? Sales or international business could be a good direction.

Do you like working with people? Everybody does it, but some jobs do it less. Or more, I guess.

What kinds of organizations do you want to work for? Do you want a government job? Do you care what the company you work for does, or are you just worried about your role within it? Do you want to work for a big company, or a small one?

Goal-oriented questions like these can help you build a quality list of jobs that align with what you really want, and it can help narrow down your degree choices.

Find the degree programs that overlap with the jobs you want and the goals you have, then look at schools with strong programs in that field. (Our online degree rankings could come in handy here.)

Craft your degree around your desired jobs and goals

If you play your cards right, you can use your electives and even general requirements to fill out a minor (or even work towards a second major) to make your degree really stand out.

Say you want to work for an airline, a hotel, or a cruise line. You could combine a BS in economics with a minor in tourism. Then you’d not only understand the industries you’re entering, but you’d also have a handle on how the fluctuating economy factors into these sorts of businesses.

Or say you want to work for a large corporation like Starbucks, but not as a barista like all your English major friends. You could get a BS in manufacturing and supply chain management with a minor in international business.

A carefully selected degree instantly makes your resume stand out over someone else with similar work experience and a general business degree.

Compare the curriculum of programs you’re interested in

Like I said before, almost all of these degrees are going to share core business classes (which is why a general business degree doesn’t give you an advantage), but you should definitely look at the classes each program has to offer before you decide on one.

Plot twist: you might even find that a particular class changes how you respond to the questions above, changing the entire course of your career. Probably not. But maybe. At the very least, looking through curriculum can set off red flags and help you refine your list.

A lot of the things you learn in class won’t be what you actually do in your job, but there will be some overlap. So choose a program that offers classes you’ll enjoy. (And that doesn’t mean find the easiest one.)

Don’t just compare the curriculum

Often times, the classes a particular program offers aren’t the biggest factor in landing you a job. The resume-building opportunities within a program can have a huge impact on your resume, and even create the direct connections that launch your career.

Some programs have internships built-in, or the opportunity to pursue them for credit. Others may have study abroad programs or client-based assignments that let you work with real organizations. Or they may have strong clubs and networking opportunities built around a particular major. Good professors Can can shape your interests and make your university experience more beneficial and impactful.

Before you settle on a program, find out what it has to offer beyond a few unique classes. One of the best ways to do this is to talk to real people at the school. A website can only tell you so much (and some of them are really outdated).

Start with friends. Do you have friends in that program, or majoring in that degree?

You don’t have any friends? An advisor is OK too. They’re obviously biased, but you know that, so it’s OK. In my experience, advisors are generally pretty helpful. They’ll just hound you for all your information first. But you’ll live.

If you have the time, you should go to events and listen to speakers share about the programs, majors, and jobs you’re interested in.

This is a big decision, and it’s worth taking your time on. Whatever you decide, just remember: specialize, don’t generalize.

Ryan Nelson
Ryan has a B.A. in English Literature from Western Washington University. If he could rewind and go to college all over again, he'd do it a little differently. For now, he's living vicariously through people like you by helping you find the best online schools for your field.

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