The Hidden Costs of Getting the Most Out of My Business Degree

Clubs, events, and conferences.


This past September I made the switch from a science university program to a business one and, all in all, I’m so happy I did it. Science, for me, was an endless cycle of lab work and frustrating chemical models I couldn’t wrap my head around; business, I’m finding, suits me far better.

In science, the classes were enormous but everyone was isolated. Even though I would sit in a lecture hall with five hundred other students, I would leave every class without having ever spoken to the person next to me or learning the names of my fellow classmates. It made it easy to navigate every school day in a little bubble, but it also made every lecture very lonely. There were no events, ever, that rallied the entire science faculty; the sheer size of the group meant that the resources required would simply be too great.

Business is an entirely different story. One of the first things the older students leading my business school orientation said to me—and the eighty-odd other students in my year—was that we just had to sign up for this first-year weekend retreat that was coming up at the end of the month.

“It’s so amazing!” they cooed. “You’ll regret it for the rest of your degree if you don’t go to this event.” As they went through the laundry list of other events planned throughout the business school for the rest of the year, the president of the business student body advised us to sign up for “every club” and go to “every event” if we could. It was good for networking, he noted, and would help us get ahead in school. The message the upperclassmen sent was clear: the social aspect of business school was just as important, if not more so, as the actual attending of lectures and completion of homework. Furthermore, those whose only involvement at school involved attending class, going home, and doing assignments were missing out on half of the point of being in and benefiting from the business program.

The social aspect of business school was just as important, if not more so, as the actual attending of lectures and completion of homework.

Conversations with other orientation leaders echoed the same sentiment: go to the bars, get into the clubs, and mingle, mingle, mingle with your fellow students. Want a prestigious school club executive position? Make an effort to head out to the pub for that Accounting Club mixer and see if you can talk up the current Vice President of Finance. Looking to secure a job post-graduation in a few years? If you get chummy with the upperclassmen, you might make yourself a valuable connection that can hook you up with a coveted interview down the line.

It can sound forced, but frankly, it’s not a bad strategy. Networking is important; any guide to business will tell you it’s tantamount for success. Of course, this type of success comes at a cost.

The events coordinated by the business school clubs are associated with the larger university, but they’re not covered by university fees — so a lot of the costs are passed on to the students. The retreat mentioned by the older students at orientation cost $85; mixers can cost $5 to $10 per ticket, plus drinks, food, and parking; conferences can range anywhere from $30 to $550. These events are less expensive that they would be if they were hosted separately from the school, but over time, the prospect of attending every event “just because” loses its opportunistic value.

The school also encourages students to participate in events called case competitions, in which teams of three or four students analyze a set of documents detailing an issue a fictional or real company is experiencing and compete to come up with the best solution, which they present to a panel of judges. Case competitions are a fantastic way to glean presentation skills that can’t be taught in a lecture, develop teamwork skills and quick thinking, and apply paper knowledge to a complex extrinsic problem. Case competitions also come with their own fees. Typically each student in a team pays $20 to $25, for a total of about $75 or $100 per team. If a team places favorably — typically first, second, or third — the team as a whole is usually awarded a prize. This prize can take the form of cash, medals, or admission to future case competitions.

I’ve been comparatively conservative when it comes to my spending on supplementary business activities. Here’s what I’ve actually spent on these events so far this year:

  • Weekend first-year retreat: $85
  • Junior case competition: $20; no return. Weekend parking: $5
  • Human resources case competition: $20; prize return: $50 cash
  • Business club Halloween bar event: $5; I didn’t drink the one free alcoholic beverage my ticket came with; street parking cost $10 at a meter
  • Case competition, internal round: $20; no cash prize return, but received free admission to a future competition
  • Business challenge series: $20; this event required the spending of additional money in order to have a shot at winning the only prize of $250 per person for the first-place team, which we did not win
  • Business school gala event: $65
  • Case competition, external round: fully subsidized, but we were shacked up in a hotel and forgot to pack our toothbrushes, which cost $2 to replace
  • Week-long business seminar: $550

Total expenditures: $800

But if I took the orientation leaders’ advice and attended every event for the clubs that have my email on their mailing lists, here are some of the costs I would incur on top of what I’ve already listed above:

  • Corporate breakfast event: $10
  • Bar graffiti night: $10, not including parking costs and additional drinks
  • First-year networking conference: $30
  • Accounting club mixer: $3, not including parking costs and additional drinks
  • International business case competition: $20
  • Women in business club conference: $475
  • Student empowerment bar night: $7, excluding parking and drinks
  • Leadership club formal networking dinner: $25
  • Not-for-profit company case competition: $20
  • Accounting club case competition: $20

Total (including previous expenditures): $1,420

Factoring in the standard $10 to $15 per event that parking would cost for weeknights, $5 weekend passes for each competition, and budgeting around $10 for drinks, that takes the total up to a healthy $1,540 on the upper end of the spectrum. Considering tuition, without scholarships, costs me around $3,990 to $4,300 per term, so adding close to another extra 20 percent on top of that just for clubs and activities really does seem a little extreme. All the little charges — $7 here, $15 there — add up over time, and although the conferences that are so heavily advertised to students are subsidized, they still take a hefty enough chunk out of the average classmate wallet that even with the discounted cost, it’s just too much for some students to even think of attending. The extra costs are a financial firewall that is tied intrinsically to the hairy issue of privilege; the thought that some students just can’t capitalize on the opportunities around them can leave a sour aftertaste.

Granted, I have to give my school credit — these events are meant to enrich a student’s degree, give them gateways into low-risk environments where they can flex their burgeoning networking skills, and teach students to navigate the sphere of real-world business in a micro-capacity that shields them from the sometimes shark-infested reality of investment banking and Wall Street. These events are often very fun — I’m not exactly swimming in funds myself, but the opportunity cost for some of these events is worth a few weeks of skipping lunch and seeing how far one batch of steamed rice will go to me. It’s great that my school — any school — provides these kinds of opportunities to its students, especially since these windows are hard to come by outside of a college or university setting.

But the idea that individuals who do not participate in these events or neglect to show up for every single one as advised for whatever reason are somehow cheating themselves of friends and connections and cheapening their degree — a message that, while not universally or outright projected, is implied by some —deserves to be examined more carefully. I’m not saying these events should be halted, and I’m not expecting people to reduce entry fees; I’m pretty sure the fees are already as low as they can reasonably go. Still, there are costs associated with urging students to “get the most out of your degree” — and that’s something to consider the next time a classmate declines to show up for the latest mixer.

Victoria Chiu is a writer and student who is probably poring through a finance textbook right now.

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