Structure of a Business Education

Cite this article as:"Structure of a Business Education," in The Business Professor, updated August 20, 2019, last accessed July 9, 2020,


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In this article, I break down the structure of business education programs within a college of university. More specifically, I talk about the types of degrees/certificates and course structure. I close out by talking about a few important things that every business student should know about business schools, including name recognition, accreditation, rankings, and what you should consider when enrolling in a business school.

Business Schools Programs

Business school programs come in a number of forms, as follows:

Certificate Programs – A certificate program allows individuals to take a series of designated courses to receive a certificate of completion. These programs are generally open to either students enrolled in a college/university or the general public. While these programs do not generally carry the weight of a bachelor’s degree in a subject, they can be a useful signaling function to employers.

  • Note: Certificate programs are generally different than professional certifications. Certifications generally come from industry organizations, such as the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants; the Project Management Institutes; or Certified Financial Analyst Institute.

Bachelor’s Degrees – A bachelor’s degree in business comes in a few forms. It can be a bachelors or arts (BA) or bachelor of science (BS). While similar in nature, a BS degree tends to be more technical in nature than a BA. A business degree generally entails 60 or more credit hours of general education and elective topics and approximately 60 credit hours in business courses. We discuss the various types of business courses further below. Students can major in any number of subject-matter business areas, such as Accounting, Economics, Finance, Management, Marketing, etc., by taking 30 or more credit hours in that field of study.

  • Note: There is an ever-increasing list of available majors for business school students. This shift is to meet the increased demands for knowledge and training in specific, subject-matter areas. Examples of emerging major programs include: human resources, real estate, risk management, or data analysis.

Recently, Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) degrees have become increasingly popular. These programs offer a blend of business courses (generally 60 credit hours) to provide a well-rounded business education. Students can generally seek a concentration in a subject-matter area by completing a prescribed series of business courses (generally 18 credit hours) in that field.

Students in other schools within the college/university might seek a minor in a business field. This generally requires the student to take a minimum number of courses (generally 6 to 8) in a discipline. A minor is an excellent way of signaling interest and aptitude in a field that is not related to one’s concentration.

Master’s Degree – Business schools (mainly Universities) offer a variety of master’s degree programs in a variety of business disciplines. The most common is the Master of Business Administration. The MBA generally consists of a mixture of business courses from the major disciplines, such as accounting, finance, marketing, economics, and management. Students can generally receive a concentration in a particular discipline by taking a designated series of courses.

The MBA has become a highly-prizes accomplishment for business professionals. Traditionally, an MBA from a reputable school signals a deeper understanding of broad range of business knowledge. Below we discuss business school reputation. The MBA comes in a variety of formats, including:

  • Full-Time MBA – The full-time MBA generally requires approximately 60 credit hours of course completion over four semesters. The courses are structured to take place during the Spring and Fall semesters. This allows students to undertake a professional internship during the summer separate the first and second academic years. Some full-time MBA programs are on the quarter system; but, the opportunity for a internship is likewise built into the program.
  • Accelerated MBA – The accelerated MBA, as the name implies, takes place over a shorter period of time. This happens by offering shorter, more-condensed courses. It often includes summer or winter semesters. It generally requires slightly fewer credit hours than the full-time MBA, and there may not be an opportunity to undertake an internship.
  • Professional MBAs – A professional MBA is geared toward the working professional who wants to simultaneously pursue a business degree. Courses generally take place over a quarter or semester, depending upon the school’s academic calendar. Some courses will span multiple academic periods, based upon the nature of the course offering (such as the number of credit hours offered). The courses are generally truncated in the number of hours students are required to meet for classes. The class sessions often take place during weekends (Saturdays) and last most of the day. Students generally enroll in anywhere from 1 to 3 courses each semester. Also, the work load required of the professional MBA student is generally less arduous than the full-time or accelerated MBA programs. This allows students to balance the program requirements with their day jobs.
  • Executive MBAs – The executive MBA program is designed to cater to the needs of business leaders (executives) who need additional business instruction (primarily theoretical knowledge). Sometimes an MBA is required when the business leader is going to move into a higher-level managerial role. It might be that the executive will needed enhanced business knowledge. It may also be that it is a positive signal to outside stakeholders when company leaders have impressive academic credentials. These programs are a very truncated in nature. Students may enroll full-time or part-time. Full-time students generally complete the MBA in six months or less. Part-time students may take as long as 1-2 years to complete the program. The programs focus heavily upon management theory and less upon technical skills. The programs depend heavily upon group participation. The work required is generally far less arduous than a full-time MBA program. Grading is generally given on a pass-fail basis, with a nearly 100% passage rate.

Business schools across the world offer a variety of specialized master’s degrees. These degrees are generally attractive to individuals seeking to enter highly-competitive careers that require extensive, subject-matter knowledge as an entry-level, professional service provider. Some of the most common masters degree programs include:

  • Accounting – A Masters of Accounting of MAcc degree is very popular among individuals seeking CPA licensure. A CPA must take a minimum of 150 college credit hours, with 30 or more hours in the accounting discipline. The MAcc is highly desired by Big Four accounting firms.
  • Analytics – Masters of Analytics or similar degrees, such as decision analysis, data systems, etc., are becoming increasingly popular. These degrees prepare students for highly-technical careers in big data management. These programs are generally 24 to 30 credit hours. They may be hosted in business or math departments.
  • Finance – Masters in Finance degrees provide in-depth instruction in finance practice. The programs generally are 24 – 60 credit hours, and may be taken full of part time. These degrees tend to be far more technically involved than undergraduate-level courses. They generally required strong mathematical skills. Computation finance degrees require a degree of proficiency in computer programing.
  • Human Resources – Masters degrees in human resources are growing in popularity. While HR is not a highly technical field, it can be difficult to land positions within this field. As a means of separating one’s self from other applicants, students are increasingly attending master’s degree programs in the field. These programs are generally 24 – 30 credit hours.
  • Marketing (Analytics) – Masters of marketing degrees are generally focused on the analytics and data computation side of marketing. This is in comparison to undergraduate marketing degrees, which generally focus on theory and practice aspects. It is well-suited for students seeking professional positions as marketing analysts. These programs are generally 24 – 30 credit hours.
  • Real Estate – Masters of real estate degrees are are very specialized degrees focusing on commercial real estate transactions. They tend to be finance heavy, with a certain number of transactional courses on the contracting, construction, lease, and sale of commercial real estate.

Doctoral Degree

Finally, the terminal degree in the field of business education is the doctorate degree. Traditionally, a doctorate degree is a researcher’s degree. This reality, however, is changing quickly. There are two common forms of business doctorate:

  • PhD – A PhD or doctor of philosophy is a slightly more complicated form of degree than most people understand. First off, a PhD is a research-based degree. These programs generally require students to attend a minimum of 24 – 30 credit hours in substantive business courses at the master’s degree level. The student will also take a number of courses on research methods. Also, the student will simultaneously enroll in courses directed by a PhD advisor. As part of these courses, the student will undertake directed research that will ultimately lead up to or integrate into a doctoral dissertation. The dissertation is either long treatise on the research topic or a series of research papers on the subject. Once the above-reference courses are completed, the student will generally focus (almost) exclusively on research for a period of 2 – 3 years. During this time, the student often teaches courses in the University and meets with her advisor. The advisor will provide feedback and review on the research process and methods throughout the process. Once the student is ready, she will apply for or select a dissertation committee. This group of (generally 3) individuals will serve as the reviewers and evaluators of the doctoral thesis. The PhD candidate will submit her work to the committee. She will also schedule a time to defend the work against committee review. If she is able to successfully appear before the committee and defend the merits of her work (both process, subject-matter, and results), the committee will approve or accept the dissertation. They committee will make recommendation to the business department and university to award the student a doctorate degree.
  • DBA – A DBA or Doctorate of Business Administration is similar in nature to a PhD. The primary difference is that the DBA tends to be more practitioner focused than a PhD. That is, the student will generally take a prescribed combination of business and research courses. The student will still have a doctoral advisor and follow the dissertation review process. The subject-matter of the research is generally less theoretical and more related to practice or application. Many would say that the review process or less academically grueling than a PhD; however, there is a greater emphasis on the practical knowledge and competence of the doctoral candidate.
  • Executive DBA – A more recent form of the DBA is the Executive DBA. As the name indicates, this program is oriented toward high-level industry professionals who have an interest in diving further into business theory and research practice. The program generally includes a series of substantive business and research courses. The student must also undertake a research paper – dissertation – to graduate. These research papers generally concern industry-specific issues that the executive desires to understand in greater detail. These programs are generally considered to be far less academically rigorous than a traditional DBA or PhD.

Degree Format

Another important thing to discuss concerning the structure of a business degree program is the method of delivery.


Traditionally, business programs are part of an academic institution with a physical location. Students either live on the college or university campus or commute to campus to attend classes. The traditional method of delivery is in-class lectures throughout an academic semester or quarter. The course will generally include assigned readings over which the professor will lecture. There may be homework assignments consisting of practice questions. The primary grades derive from completion of in-class or take-home examinations, research papers, attendance/class participation, homework completion, presentations, etc.

Increasingly, traditional business programs are integrating digital resources into the classroom. It is now common for all course material to be integrated into a learning management platform that the student can access from any internet-enabled device. This allows for the use of video, audio, and interactive software to teach the course material. In fact, the major shift in textbook publishers is to provide online access to textbooks and other learning resources through an online content management platform controlled by the publisher.

This has given way to the integration of hybrid and online courses within traditional business schools. Hybrid courses divide class sessions into traditional sessions and sessions delivered via information technology. Generally, the student will attend a reduced number of classroom lectures. In turn, they will spend greater time navigating online, learning resources. These resources generally include video presentation, practice problems, text material, and interactive software (such as gamified learning material).


The last 25 years has seen the emergence of educational programs that are completely online. Some of these programs are connected with established educational institutions, while others are complete independent.

  • Important Note: Before undertaking an online program, make certain that it is a reputable organization. There are many private, for-profit education institutions that are widely known for taking advantage of students by offering poor quality instruction, few resources, etc. There are also many diploma mills that award academic credit or degrees to students without maintaining academic standards for instruction or assessment of learning. During my time in the military, I witnessed many soldiers take courses online. Often the answers to course examinations would be readily available for purchase from other soldiers and individuals through the internet. The student would receive academic credit for courses (and sometimes entire degrees) without completing even a fraction of the work traditionally required to earn that academic credit. The student was satisfied with the outcome, as they used the degree for credit toward promotion rather than actually learning the course material being offered.

Online programs generally offer course instruction in a variety of formats.

Live Sessions – A common format is live sessions where a professor lectures to students through information technology systems. Some take it a step further and require students to travel to the school at the end of the grading period to take in-person examinations. This is generally regarded as the most high-quality format for an online degree. Students have access to the professor and other students in the course as learning resources. Grades are derived from traditional methods, such as examinations, research exercises, homework completion, etc.

Recorded Sessions – Another common format is where all course material (lectures, readings, practice questions, etc.) are posted online for the student’s completion in a learning management system. The system tracks the student’s rate of completion and performance. Professors may be assigned to the courses are resources – generally to grade work and to answer student questions. Programs of this nature often have a marginal (or sometimes negative) reputation in society. Those will a negative impression tend to group them together with the diploma mills that do little to maintain academic standards.

While the learning resources provided to the student may be quality in nature, outside perception of one’s degree is generally important for creating employment opportunities. Most employers indicate that, while they do ascribe value to an online degree, they generally consider it to be less valuable as a credential for an employees. With that being said, it is important to make certain that, if you intend to use the business degree as a credential to create additional opportunities, you should only consider programs that have demonstrated a given level of quality. Below we discuss accreditation of business programs. This can be a good indicator of program quality and reputation in industry.

Breaking Down Business School Courses

Business programs generally offer a similar selection of course offerings, based upon the major or concentration. In summary, the most common categories of course include:

  • Management & Leadership
  • Marketing (including Public Relations & Advertising)
  • Accounting
  • Finance
  • Operations (including Supply Chain Management)
  • Information Systems (including Information Technology)
  • Data and Decision Analysis (including Business Math)
  • Economics
  • International Business
  • Human Resources
  • Real Estate
  • Insurance & Risk Management
  • Entrepreneurship

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