The above question isn’t an original one. Everywhere I look I read articles and commentary by people alternately extolling and discounting the virtues of a degree, with a master’s of business administration receiving either high praise or vitriolic disdain respectively.  A lot of people have a dog in the current fights we’re having over jobs, education and economics in general.

I really do think this question, and the skepticism over whether education really is a path to prosperity which inspires people to ask it, is worth addressing. People often point to Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg as examples of wildly successful entrepreneurs and industry leaders who dropped out of college. This rather simplistic argument typically ignores the fact that these high-profile drop-out superstars are the exception rather than the rule.

The Data behind Education Value

The actual numbers show that American business owners that make up our entrepreneurial class are actually quite highly educated:

· 64% of owners have at least some college when they start their businesses.

· Nearly a quarter have bachelor’s degrees, and 17 percent have a graduate degree.

· Less than a quarter of business owners have a high school diploma or less.

This data speaks well of an education to help people start and succeed in business. And it’s not just the entrepreneurs who are seeing their knowledge and skills well received in the marketplace. Business degrees apply to every industry, business type, government organization and non-profit.

Business majors are clearly walking out of their respective colleges and universities with skills that employers are finding useful because you find them everywhere. Finance, accounting, economics, health administration, marketing and a host of other specializations can lead you to a promising career in those fields or help you move to more senior positions in addition to your existing degree.

Business Grads Earn Big Salaries

I hesitate to mention salary, since that’s not necessarily everyone’s primary focus. But it is a reflection of the value that a degree, and the skills it represents, have out there in the real world. Mid-career salaries for MBA’s in a number of specializations reach into the six figures, and they’re even a prerequisite for management positions in a lot of firms.

Now, a master’s in business isn’t necessarily the graduate program that everyone should go into to further their career in any field, but the degree is so ubiquitous among managers and top executives that it’s clearly a preferred choice for people looking to move up.

Making a Business Degree Work for You

If you’re going to make the investment in education as part of your future, you have to have a plan in mind. Look five or 10 years down the road. Consider the industry you want to be in and the types of positions you want to have, and look at the education, skills and experience required to get there. Your actual degree program can be the foundation for all of that.

The key to succeeding in today’s marketplace is to diversify your skills and follow a plan. That means being more than just another business grad; it means having expertise in something specialized, having a focus and a direction for your business acumen. I’m thinking of technology skills that allow you to work with IT professionals and manage projects. I’m thinking of getting exposure to creative processes, unique business models and day-to-day operations of professions you won’t be working in, but that you need to understand in order to manage the people who do and help them succeed as a group.

This is why so many companies find it beneficial to send their people back to school on their dime. A software developer with an MBA can easily step into a project manager role or move on to manage the firm’s technology assets. But you want to be sure that a graduate degree in those specialized courses wouldn’t be better; a business degree points you toward a management or executive track because it’s broader in its application.