What’s Being Taught in Modern Marketing College Courses?

March 7, 2018 | Dan Trefethen

On my marketing team, we have the following bachelor degrees represented: Elementary Education, International Political Science, Business Administration, English, Psychology and Human Development, Graphic Design, a handful of mixed communication focuses including political, media, corporate, and advertising, and one official marketing major.

From one perspective this may seem like a motley crew, from another, however, you could make the case that all of those studies combined make for quite a comprehensive unit for the variety of entities marketing covers.

Either way, the fact remains that the majority did not specifically study marketing. And in checking in with a few other marketing teams, this doesn’t seem to be a unique instance.

There are a variety of reasons why this could be the case. The above average rise of marketing jobs over the past few years, combined with the broad changes from the digital age has created new roles, opportunities, and skill requirements.

With the amount of constant evolution in modern marketing, specifically B2B, it’s easy to wonder if the gigantic freight train (or ocean liner, whatever metaphor you want to use) that is higher education is agile and adaptable enough to keep up.

If marketing teams are made up of a bunch of non-marketing majors, but there’s no shortage of marketing program degrees, what’s being taught in modern marketing courses?

A Look at College Marketing Course Options

My expectation was to find curriculums to be broad, introductory, and perhaps a bit dated. Upon research I was surprised to discover a diverse range of different programs, course offerings, and a modern, first-hand teaching approach.

I assumed the core areas of study would be something like Public Relations, Market Research, Advertising, and maybe Product Development. While this guess was not inaccurate, it definitely does not represent the whole picture.

I looked at several top ranked marketing universities’ course offerings and pinned down a focus on five specific programs.

  • Boston University (no marketing major)
  • Bentley University (a business school marketing curriculum)
  • Emerson College (a merging focus with a marketing-comm major)
  • Penn State (a diverse course offering)
  • NYU (one of the “best” marketing programs)

For a quick high-level view, here’s a sample of Bentley’s marketing course options:


Image source: bentley.edu

At Boston University, although there is no dedicated marketing major, students in the business school can choose a marketing concentration, and within the Communication department there are not one, but two courses in interactive marketing, which is quite a modern tactic.


An article written by Fast Company in early 2015, 3 Key Digital Marketing Skills Students Don’t Learn In College, highlighted a potential weakness of university marketing programs as social media. This could be a split school of thought as social media is in continual evolution and one could argue younger generations intuitively understand social media as a constant in their lives.

Nonetheless, an indirect response to the 2015’s article can be seen in Penn State’s course offering of Intermediate Social Media Marketing, complete with prerequisites.


In the same Fast Company article, the third weakness listed is Lead Nurturing and Technical Skills. They list examples like:

  • Email marketing software
  • Social media management software and analytics
  • Google analytics and adwords
  • CRM and CMS software

While these systems are used in both B2C and B2B, they are rather granular to specific responsibilities within a marketing team – and what kind of college student really knows that they want to specialize in SEO or Marketo at age 20?

It’s for this specificity that Forbes emphasized the importance of Digital Marketing Certificates as key to marketing professionals. In terms of college curriculum, these skills would probably be too niche to offer a whole class on. Plus these tools are constantly trying to become more user friendly for quick adoption – they don’t want a high barrier of entry.

However to get a little more insight on the adaptation on university marketing programs, I was able to talk with Michael Reilly, of Reilly Communications, who teaches Public Relations as an adjunct at Boston University.

“Most universities are still quite siloed, with marketing for example taught in the business school but not in the communications school. I see this changing as curriculum evolves and course offerings are reimagined in response to the needs of employers. It’s left up the student to cross pollinate across schools, and some do this.”

To this point, you can look at Emerson College, one of the more forward thinking media colleges in the country. Their program is titled Marketing Communications, and is more geared at bridging the overlap between marketing fundamentals and communication studies.

It’s with this focus on overlap that I saw Emerson’s program as one of the most interesting and real-word applicable.

Here’s a preview of a handful of courses offered.


Image source: emerson.edu

The Marketer In-Residence Approach

After speaking with professors from Bentley, Boston University, and Emerson, one of the more salient approaches was the presence of a “marketer in residence” so to speak. Many of the advance courses offered at these schools are taught not by full-time academics and teachers, but by professionals currently working in marketing, or at least with extensive prior experience.

It is with these subjects that, while the course title may remain the same for years and years, the topics covered are shaped by the individual professor whose job it is to bring in of-the-moment examples, trends, and case studies they encounter into the classroom.

This type of approach allows the universities to stay in sync with changing market trends and strategies. It’s how a class listed as “Business Marketing” can remain a staple in the catalog for decades, but the content will always be changing.

Screen Shot 2018-02-04 at 3.04.18 PM.png

Source: psu.edu

The only real downside is that the quality of the course is dependent on what the professor decides to cover. If they are an experienced and enthusiastic mentor who wants to link the real-world with the classroom, then you have a strong class.

“In my class we spend a lot of time on the skills required in a world where marketing, PR, brand management, advertising, community relations, and corporate communications are converging into a single, holistic profession where the silos are disappearing,” said Reilly on his approach to Public Relations courses.

However, with a lack of a more focused course, a professor could also choose to cover more dated examples or approaches.

In speaking with Justina Logozzo, SnapApp’s Digital Marketing Manager and only marketing degree holder, she had a less inspired experience. Graduating from the University of Texas in 2012, she said:

“A lot of my experience in undergrad classes was around market research and learning-the-audience with a lot of dated techniques. Most of my classes covered aspects that weren’t digital based. And even when we did cover digital practice, they would also be dated. Most of what I learned for my current position was learned on the job and researching techniques and tools on my own and doing things that way.”

The Student Perspective

Though certain modern curriculums are surprising in their course diversity and professional-in-residence approach, the learning still seems to come primarily from on-the-job.

Mandi Hinrichs who graduated from Emerson in 2014 and now works as a freelance content writer and social media strategist took several media and marketing courses, but gained the most from an internship.

“I definitely learned the most interning at an agency. I think that experience was critical. It’s good to get the basic marketing foundation and vocabulary in the classroom, like design, and learning what a marketing funnel is and SEM, but you don’t really understand and can’t really put it to practice until you’re doing it and surrounded by people actually doing it – the internship is what made it all click. And I think that’s where the emphasis needs to be.”

Logozzo had a very similar experience where the primary learning came after school, outside of the classroom.

“Right after school, I started as a Marketing Coordinator for a small business, which means I was the marketing department. I definitely learned the most there, and that’s where I found the marketing and career path I actually wanted to take.”

Though she agrees that having the marketing degree on her resume is what helped land her first job, which highlights, to some extent, a classroom to marketing disconnect. An improvement on the classroom and hands-on experience is something that should be continually explored and made more accessible, said Hinrichs.

“Unfortunately, not all students have the opportunity to do internships, so making more hands-on exercises in the classroom, or maybe making more intentional overlaps would be very beneficial. A hypothetical approach could be a semester long pairing of marketing students with business entrepreneurial students and collaborating in real time on strategy as an exercise.”

A Broad Net

The major theme I took away from talking with professors and recent students, and looking through several university programs was a strange disagreement on scope.

Many of the “top” curriculums seem to establish a foundation of “making a CMO” or a more entrepreneurial spin. Classes like Data Driven Decision Making, Launching & Managing New Products, and Decision Making Strategy offered from NYU are interesting and valuable subjects, but are big, macro lessons.


Image source: nyu.edu

But this is not really the model of a healthy marketing team, which needs to be made up of different specialties, skills, and perspectives collected together by one to three leaders with that type of broad intent.

It also goes against the experience of young marketing professionals who are not far out of school.

“The biggest piece of advice a professor gave me, a marketing graduate herself, was instead of going to get an MBA, go get a degree that provides you a skill set, because MBAs don’t directly help you with marketing,” said Logozzo.

And a similar sentiment was offered up by Hinrichs when asked of her advice to students interested in marketing careers:

“Try to take any mixed media class even if it’s not exactly marketing – you can find a way to spin it towards an advertising or marketing profession, which I think is great and I think is something that’s really undervalued. I feel like students feel they need to stick to their majors when crossing over into the job market, whereas with marketing and advertising, you can kind of create your own path that can be way more dependent on your interests.”

This disagreement on scope is not necessarily bad, nor is it representative of every marketing professional’s experience or college program’s goals. However, it does help explain why a marketing team would be made of a variety of backgrounds.

For the student who wants to be a CMO or run an agency, these broad and strategic courses would help create that path, but a strong marketing team includes a diverse, evolving range of skills – some creative, some analytical, some personality based, some just through first hand experience.

While it seems that the too-general course offering that make up some college marketing programs that I predicted at the beginning continue to exist, there is a definite adaptation to curriculum taken from more progressive schools, and maybe this will start to show in the job market. However, there also seems to be a fresh perspective from students that shows a resourcefulness outside of bachelor degrees to follow their own marketing interests.

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