Is a college marketing degree worthless?

marketing degree worthless

By Mark Schaefer

The idea of the business school, and a business education, has been under attack.

A recent London Guardian article suggested that we bulldoze business schools claiming they are archaic, political beasts. Alternative education models are emerging emphasizing narrow “apprenticeships.”

Famous pundits like Gary Vee claim a college education could be the biggest waste of money imaginable. You should skip college and start a business like him, he claims (although he actually did attend college and also inherited his father’s profitable business).

I’ve taught at a business school for eight years and I lecture at universities around the world. This blog post is one data point on the subject for you to consider. Is a marketing degree worthless? The answer might surprise you.

Why college?

Let’s start at a very high level. If you want to pursue a career in marketing, do you need a college degree at all? With every kind of training available online, do you really need that expensive college education?


In my view, a college education prepares you for your first 2-3 years on the job. For most traditional careers, it’s still the “onramp” for employment. Attitudes might be changing slowly, but it’s unlikely you’ll get a great-paying job in marketing without a college degree. I have several friends who have been unemployed, or under-employed, for years and they will tell you it is because they do not have a college degree.

The data show that the best way to start a business career is with a college education and grads far out-earn non-grads (by about $1.5 million over a lifetime).

I understand that a university isn’t for everyone, but for the foreseeable future, if college is right for you, a university education is the surest bet for business-related employment.

Is business school effective?

Let’s put aside the idea for a moment that college is the surest way to get a job. Do you actually learn anything useful?

The Guardian article I mentioned suggested that business schools need to be razed and re-invented.

I can’t speak about business schools in general, but I do have a pretty accurate view of the state of marketing education in American … and it is pathetic.

I’ll spare you the details, but I speak at a lot of colleges and nearly all of them have out-of-touch teachers in out-of-date programs. I can name several large national universities that don’t even have a single digital marketing class.

I literally sat in a business school staff meeting and listened to a department chair argue that social media is a passing fad and that an advertising major should stick to learning about magazine ad design.

A tenured marketing professor at a respected Midwest university asked me if she should learn about social media —  she had never been on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook.

Another professor said his department scoffs at his blogging, insisting that he should be writing more scholarly papers instead.

Like I said … out of touch.

And I’m not impressed with the output either. Most marketing grads are unprepared for the real world. I became so frustrated trying to find qualified marketing interns that I suspended my internship program two years ago. After years of frustration I determined that marketing grads I’ve interviewed are not ready to work for my business, even at an entry level.

Point is, I agree with the Guardian article. Marketing education is in crisis.

What about a marketing degree?

There is no short-term solution to the marketing education crisis because the most venerable traditions at universities block progress.

  1. Marketing education does not need tenured professors sitting in their offices thinking big thoughts and doing pointless research. Today, if you’re not immersed in marketing, you can’t teach it.  Marketing profs need to be working in this fast-changing field to be relevant. BTW, this is why the program I teach in at Rutgers University is so good — ALL adjunct profs who are active, working professionals).
  2. Profs are rewarded for research and writing, not innovation and staying abreast of the business.
  3. Technology is dramatically altering our field. Many of the ideas taught in a freshman year will be invalid by the senior year. New education models need to be created that adjust to the times … and perhaps continue to educate students after they graduate (now THAT would be valuable!).
  4. It may take two years to get a new class approved by an accreditation process. I’m guessing most marketing classes are obsolete before they are approved. Accreditation bodies need to act more rapidly and allow marketing departments to adapt on the fly.

Bottom line, look at marketing degrees and faculty very carefully before deciding on a program.

Is a marketing degree worthless?

I had a conversation with a fellow recently who sought some advice on his business.

The fellow had dropped out of college and was thoroughly enmeshed in the school of hustle. He was working an incredible number of hours but without any direction or plan. I think he thought if he just worked 80 hours a week on anything that occurred to him that success was assured.

He had no degree.

He had no training.

He had not worked in a marketing department, ever.

And yet he is starting his own marketing business?

That is not how the world works. After a lengthy call with this young man, it was clear that he was creating random acts of content, was hopelessly un-focused, and had so many projects going that it was impossible for him to do any of them well. He lacked basic business knowledge and had no capacity for strategic thinking.

The biggest lie in our world today is that we can achieve a goal by visualizing it, that we will win in business with our sheer will and commitment to work crazy hours.

We cannot rise to the level of our expectations. We fall to the level of our training.

You still need training to win, even if you do it on your own.

A strategy

So here is the dilemma. 1) You probably won’t get a decent marketing job without a degree; 2) Marketing education in America is problematic; 3) Even with a degree, you need to be accountable for your own training and experiences.

If I were a young person trying to become a marketer today, this would be my strategy:

Go to college. It still matters. It is a marker that you can commit, complete something, and work hard.

Choose your program very carefully and look for the opportunity to learn from a variety of instructors including working adjuncts and guest lecturers who are in the field.

Plan on having several internships throughout your college career. If you don’t have at least two meaningful internships I would not even have a discussion with you as an employer. You should also be blogging or creating some sort of content on a regular basis.

While you are in college, you need to do everything you can to supplement your marketing education with real-world insights:

  • Subscribe to the best marketing blogs
  • Become active in campus and community professional groups
  • Attend conferences
  • Seek out relevant marketing books
  • Find a successful person to be your mentor
  • Be active in social media
  • Create tons of content before you graduate (almost nobody is doing this!)
  • Take classes in statistics and analytics
  • On your own, learn how to create and manage online ads

There are no easy answers, but business isn’t easy. Life isn’t easy.

You may have to work a little harder to get the right preparation for a career in marketing, but it’s worth it. Marketing is the front line of the business world and nothing is more fun!

Keynote speaker Mark SchaeferMark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world.  Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

Illustration courtesy

All posts

The Marketing Companion Podcast

Why not tune into the world’s most entertaining marketing podcast!

View details

Let's plot a strategy together

Want to solve big marketing problems for a little bit of money? Sign up for an hour of Mark’s time and put your business on the fast-track.

View details