By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business
This is the second article in a 12-part series, adapted from my dissertation work at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, on the discord between academe and industry over the role of hospitality education and the purpose it serves in career development for hospitality professionals.
The foundations of this topic concern a complex web of academic research that has spanned many decades and multiple disciplines. Schools of education, psychology, organizational behavior, hospitality and business, and even economics have contributed significantly to an understanding of the factors that motivate decisions to pursue higher education; whether such decisions will affect career experiences, and whether perceptions concerning the value of higher education can be expected to change as a result of career experiences (or lack thereof).
What Is Hospitality Higher Education?
As a first step in developing context for this study, it is important to understand specifically what hospitality higher education is and why the controversy over its value exists in the first place.
Hospitality education is a body of curricula and academic programs designed to prepare students for professional careers in the various aspects of the hospitality industry. At its broadest, these may include hotels, motels, resorts, casinos, airlines, cruise lines, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, theme parks, destination management companies, tourism bureaus, and any other businesses that are hospitality- and tourism-oriented. In the past, the industry was more broadly broken down into five specific areas: food service, lodging, recreation, travel, and convention and meetings.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the hospitality industry was experiencing steady year-on-year growth. In 2019, the total contribution from travel and tourism industries to the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was more than nine trillion dollars. In fact, hospitality produces so much revenue that states like Nevada and Florida — which enjoy thriving hospitality and tourism industries — have no need to burden their residents with state income taxes.
However, in spite of this enormous impact, there are barely 1,000 hospitality schools domestically to support education in this industry. Yet hospitality education has been around in the United States since the 1920s; the first hospitality education program was developed at Cornell University.
Hospitality Education Is Typically Designed around Compentency-Based Education
Hospitality education is typically designed within the paradigm of competency-based education (CBE), which has been around for more than three decades. The National Postsecondary Education Cooperative defines a competency as “a combination of skills, abilities, and knowledge needed to perform a specific task.” Competency-based education has been applied to a diverse range of fields, including teaching, medicine, business and engineering.
The specific competencies needed for hospitality careers may vary based upon the specific segment of the industry for which a professional aims. For example, culinary skills may be minimally relevant in a limited service hotel or airline setting. However, restaurants and catering companies would likely find these types of skills much more useful.
There are, however, some fundamental business skills that are versatile enough to find application in almost any industry setting. Management strategy, finance and accounting, legal considerations, and human resources are all skill sets that are universally relevant in any business context, including hospitality. As such, these types of curricula typically comprise the foundational core (required) coursework for hospitality majors in almost every U.S. hospitality program.
The classes themselves are not dissimilar to those of a business major’s undergraduate work, but with a gearing toward the particulars of the hospitality industry. To take just one example, students in both business and hospitality will take accounting classes of some variety. They will all learn the fundamentals of debits and credits, balance sheets, and income statements. However, hospitality students will likely learn about specific industry operating ratios such as revenue per available room (RevPAR) and average daily rates (ADR) in order to focus the relevance of their knowledge on their industry choice.
Many Hospitality Electives Are Geared toward the Specifics of Various Industry Segments
Core curriculum aside, however, many elective courses within hospitality programs are geared toward the specifics of various industry segments, which create a narrow tailoring of skill sets for a particular career path. In many hospitality programs, for example, electives are offered that explore areas such as sales, meetings and conventions, cruise line management, theme parks, and other specialty areas. These courses are typically designed to be taken in the latter half of a student’s undergraduate career once he or she has begun to identify a career choice.
Despite efforts from education program designers to meet the needs of the giant hospitality and tourism industry, these efforts have not escaped criticism from various stakeholders. In the next few parts of this series, we’ll discuss several common criticisms of the efficacy of such programs.