College Offers Degree in Multi-level Marketing (a.k.a. Pyramid Selling!)

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Mocking students who choose impractical majors is a popular pastime in the blogosphere; HolyTaco.com has a list of the Top 10 Most Worthless College Majors, with fields like Music Therapy, English Literature, and Latin landing on the list.

But in the pursuit of practicality and vocational training, Kansas-based Bethany College is now offering one of the most dubious majors in the thousand-plus-year history of higher education: Network Marketing, a.k.a. pyramid selling.

That’s right, Bethany College, where 84% of students graduate with an average of $22,699 in student loans, is now offering students a chance to spend four years learning how to succeed as an Amway distributor.

For those who don’t know about network, or “multilevel” marketing, it’s a business structure in which salespeople are compensated partly based on how many other salespeople they can recruit. And it’s controversial because the structures resemble illegal pyramid schemes — a stigma the Bethany program acknowledges and apparently seeks to change.

“Entrepreneurs have not been taught how to correctly use network marketing,” said Robert Carlson, the chair of the program, in a statement. “This has led to many using unethical, unsustainable, and nonproductive network marketing business models. We want to fill the education gap and teach students how to use the foundations of servant leadership to successfully and honorably operate a network marketing business.”

[time-link title="(Read TIME's NewsFeed story about the fellowship that pays students $100,00o to not attend college)" url=http://newsfeed.time.com/2011/05/31/fellowship-pays-students-100000-to-not-attend-college/]

The college will offer a marketing major with a concentration in network marketing, along with a certificate in network marketing. The major involves a mind-numbing 56-57 credits of multi-level marketing studies. Ironically though, one of the major talking points used by network marketing recruiters is that it’s a business anyone can get involved in with no prior knowledge. On its website, Amway argues that “With Amway, you are never in business alone. In addition to the support you will receive from your sponsor, Amway provides you with world-class training, marketing, products, and customer support.”

My pal forensic accountant Tracy Coenen has this to say on her blog:

I have no idea what would possess any educator to think that they ought to spend valuable classroom time teaching this type of legalized scam to students as if it was a legitimate business pursuit. I can only assume that the powers that be, namely one Robert Carlson, M.B.A., professor and chair of business, has done no research on MLM and has no idea how these scams operate. … A full 99% of people involved in multi-level marketing lose money. This figure has been demonstrated time and again by researchers analyzing the figures released by the companies.

I’ll leave the analysis of the multi-level marketing business model to Tracy, but there are some important takeaways for consumers of higher education: students and their parents who are analyzing different potential majors:

  • Many of these supposedly practical, career-oriented majors exist primarily because students and parents have an appetite for them — not because employers value the degrees. As too many graduates of career colleges have learned, the fact that you have a degree in Video Game Design or Publishing doesn’t mean that someone will give you a job in one of those fields — or the money to repay the loan you took out to get the degree.
  • Be skeptical of claims made about any program; ask how a college is going to help you get a job in a field. Ask to see placement rates, average starting salaries, unemployment rates, and data. You don’t want an opinion from some idiot in a cubicle. You want information.
  • Recognize that interests and ability have a much greater impact on career success than a major. A survey conducted by Payscale Inc., for example, found that history majors who pursue careers in business earn just as much money as business majors.

Will this new program boost enrollment at Bethany? The college currently enrolls just 592 students. But if 10 percent of those students enroll in the network marketing major — and they recruit 10 of their friends, and each of those friends recruits 10 of their friends … move over Harvard?

[time-link title="(Read about TIME's list of the 20 Best- and Worst-Paid College Majors)" url=http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2073703_2073654_2073674,00.html]

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