At first glance, it might seem that one top-ranked undergraduate business program is not so different from another. After all, students majoring in business at most schools take similar required classes in economics, management, and statistics, and leave with the same basic body of knowledge upon graduation.
But buyers beware. Choosing an undergraduate business program today can be a tricky process, especially given the overwhelming number of options out there for today’s students. There are 447 accredited undergraduate business programs for today’s prospective students to choose from, according to the most recent data available from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, an accrediting agency.
Rankings tend to be the place where most business hopefuls begin, and too often end, their search, said the deans of some of the leading U.S.-based undergraduate business programs. They can be a useful tool, but students should also consider a number of other factors beyond a school’s standing in U.S. News & World Report or Bloomberg Businessweek, the deans said.
CULTURE, STUDENT SUPPORT SERVICES, UNIQUE PROGRAMMING KEY ISSUES
For example, students need to reflect on the culture of the school, student support services available and any unique programs or classes the institution offers. They also should take into account their individual learning style and how that will mesh with the classroom experience, as well as international and extra-curricular opportunities available outside the classroom.
Most important of all is finding a place where the student feels comfortable and fits in, said Andrea Hershatter, senior associate dean for undergraduate education at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School.
“If you put a student in a place where he or she is engaged, the student will find faculty to mentor him or her, find alumni connections and network,” Hershatter said. “All of those things will help him or her be successful. I really believe every school out there has that to offer.”
ADVICE FOR BOTH PARENTS AND WOULD-BE STUDENTS FROM THE DEANS
Hershatter and nine other deans were eager to share their advice on how business-school hopefuls and their parents should approach the undergraduate business school search. Poets&Quants asked them all the same question: “What advice do you have for both parents and would-be students in choosing a quality undergraduate business program?”
Here are their responses:
Andrea Hershatter, senior associate dean for undergraduate education and director of the BBA program at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School:
I think there is a real sense among parents that there is a checklist of things they are supposed to look for, and they put a lot of emphasis on prestigious job opportunities or the reputation of the university, as if the journey were linear. My strongest notion is that it is not linear and it is not supposed to be. College as a whole is supposed to be a journey and a moment of exploration. Students should feel free to try and reject lots of career and intellectual paths, and parents should let students do that.
Edward McLaughlin, director of undergraduate programs at Cornell University’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management:
I would encourage students to think about the direction and quality of the business program at their university of choice, but not at the expense of the whole university itself. I think the business program is an important component, but only one component of the overall undergraduate student experience. I think the student has to feel comfortable at the university and try to optimize the experience of the business program in the context of the larger university.
Idalene Kessner, dean of Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business:
I would encourage parents to look very carefully at the full range of preparation students get and at things like job placement statistics. They want to know at the end of the day that the graduating students will get a great job, and even before that that they will get a great internship. They want to know that the school is preparing students for great positions. If I were the parent, those would be the kind of things I’d be looking at. I’d also look at the rankings in terms of the quality of the faculty because you want to know that students are getting a high-quality experience, that the faculty is well-trained and that the school takes that seriously.
Lynn Wooten, associate dean for undergraduate programs at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business:
My advice would be that sophomore or junior year of high school, you would want to visit campuses. You want to select a program that is really aligned with your child’s interests, so you want to think about what goals do you have and what does your child want to achieve in their undergraduate experience. Also, as a parent and potential student, you really want to investigate how that organization and institution creates transformational learning experiences. What is the curriculum like and what is the central experience like? What are co-curricular activities and how will the child develop as a leader? What is the professional development and career coaching my child will get? Those are all important things to think about.
David Platt, dean of undergraduate programs at the University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business:
I would say look for a program that provides appropriate class sizes and that provides an extensive amount of support for the student program because so much of what happens is outside of the classroom. They should look at the commitment by the school to the undergraduate program. There’s an awful lot of emphasis on MBA programs, and in some cases that can draw too much attention to MBA programs. They should look for undergraduate programs that stand independently of MBA programs, appropriate value and how quickly can they get a return on their investment. It’s appropriate to think about that.
Carl Zeithhaml, dean of the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce:
I believe the entire choice about a college or a particular discipline is a matter of fit. There are some students who fit very well in the McIntire School and there are some who probably don’t. My advice to parents and students is don’t just think about the obvious things like will I get a job out of this or is this what everybody in the fraternity house is doing. Instead, take the time to consider what are your intellectual interests, where do you want to wind up after graduation and what really is your fundamental learning style.
Lori Rosenkopf, vice dean and director of the undergraduate division at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School:
I would advise them to look for a program where they can envision themselves not only being happy and productive, but also having a wide range of flexible opportunities for the next several years. We don’t expect students to come in and say, “I know exactly what I want to study and know for my entire career.” We want students to come in here and take advantage of a vast range of new stimuli and construct a track that works for them. They should look for the quality of the program, great curricular opportunities to get exposed to different geographies and industries and opportunities to network with alumni and placement outcomes. Most importantly, they need to get out there, visit schools and see how it feels.
Lawrence Murray, director of the undergraduate business program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler School of Business:
I know this sounds so cliché and is probably over communicated, but the rankings are a good place to start. Then the students really need to think about fit, and whether or not they’re a good fit for the school and if the school is a good fit for them. I think we need to use how we coach MBAs to choose MBA programs and shift that up the pipeline a bit to undergraduates:
Dale Nees, assistant dean of undergraduate admission at University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business:
I saw statistics not that long ago that at a school like this, the number of students applying fall into the top one percent category on testing and GPA. There are several thousand applying, that’s how competitive it is. It’s a top institution and if that’s where you’re setting your goal, that’s what it is going to take. At the same time, if getting there at all costs breaks you mentally, that’s not going to help you. Students need to recognize that they need to balance really where they should be versus the opportunity. If a student wants to go to a top school and is literally driving themselves nuts trying to get there, that my not be the healthiest thing for them. Perhaps they need to adjust their mindset or not be so preoccupied with this school, or else. There are a lot of great schools out there, don’t drive yourself crazy over it. Be open-minded and very accepting of where you go.
Steven Malter, associate dean and director of the undergraduate program at Washington University in St. Louis’ Olin Business School:
I think really they need to understand the environment and culture of the university and the college, and to really understand what opportunities there are for students. It is not that dissimilar to finding a job. Also, they shouldn’t stress about it. It is about finding what is right for each individual person. I tell them that you have the opportunity to select what institution is right for you. I try to help them understand that they are empowered in the process. All too often students think they are not empowered, and I don’t believe that is the truth.