Dean’s Q&A: Dale Nees of Notre Dame University

What do you think is causing this explosion of interest in business at Notre Dame? 

I can offer several theories. A private school like Notre Dame has a price tag approaching $60,000, when you factor in room and board. That is rather a larger investment, even with the financial aid practices out there, and I think a lot of parents and students look at that from the standpoint of how do I assure myself a good paying job, and what areas show the highest return on investment. I think the business program, at least here at Notre Dame, does very well in that respect. We have an extremely high placement rate and starting salaries that can compete with the top schools in the country. Opportunities seem to present themselves and we have a tremendous alumni network. All that leads to business students historically getting good opportunities when they leave here. That’s not to say other schools can’t produce jobs, and they do. But I think there is a perception on the parents’ part that the best opportunity, or the least risk for their son or daughter getting a job will probably be in business.

Why do I say that? I think a lot of parents, at least one of two parents, is probably in a business-related job. Maybe they didn’t start out that way, but they all got into those positions. They say to their children, “I’m comfortable with business, I know what it does, I see the positive aspects of it, and I think you’d be successful in that area.” They kind of guide, or push this recommendation to their sons and daughter that they ought to think about that.

There are parents, some of whom even reach out to me, and insist that their son or daughter be in business and even be in a specific major because they believe that is the only way to get a job, they believe. I think they are misinformed and I usually tell them they are misinformed, but there is this perception parents have that if they’re going to spend $250,000 for their child to go to Notre Dame, they want them to come out with a decent job and not be hopeful that they’ll get a job.

From the student standpoint, there’s that pressure of feeling they have to get things absolutely right from the get-go. They get here, move into the residence halls and the first thing they do is interact with peers who are upperclassmen, who convince them they ought to be a business major. They tell them, “I love the program, had great internships and love my professors. I think you’ll really like it.” They hear the positive aspects of it.

I think it’s those two dynamics – the peers and the parents – which play a huge role in getting the numbers we are seeing in business.

What are you seeing at your school in terms of application numbers and general interest in an undergraduate business degree? 

There is initial admission into the university and all decisions are made there. Admissions decisions are not made inside the College of Business, and we won’t be changing that with the new procedure. However, we are having dialogues with the admission folks to say these are the things we think are important from a business perspective. That way, when anybody comes in and says they have the intent to study management, we make sure the offer of admission is also trying to satisfy that.

Even with that, we see from what they fill out on their application form to what they declare a year later to change rather significantly in some areas. So the challenge for admissions is to try and manage the intents and get them into the right bucket, so to speak. But with a university where people can be allowed to move back and forth, it can be challenging. So from an admissions standpoint, that’s another reason why we have to look at caps.

Does a degree in undergraduate business really pay off, and what do you believe is the value proposition for students? 

I would say over the last several years of data I’ve seen, six months out usually between two and three percent of those seeking jobs are still looking for one. That’s taking out students who go to graduate programs for other reasons and business students going to medical schools. Given that, roughly 85 percent of all graduates have jobs with an average salary of $55,000. For finance majors, it is in the around $60,000 on average, so that compares pretty much with most of your undergraduate programs. Those are numbers that are higher than most other program out there, so that is an example of that return on investment.

Here’s another thing to consider: At least half of the Notre Dame curriculum goes on outside of the College of Business in liberal studies and the sciences. There’s an amount of flexibility in the curriculum, and one-third of our students get a second major outside the College of Business. We don’t allow students in the College of Business to dual major. With their free elective credits, they might get a finance major in the BBA degree program and might get a second major in economics, accounting or agricultural science. A good number of students are focused on another area in addition to business, which I think further enhances their critical thinking skills. I think that’s what makes our program particularly strong and very attractive to a lot of our students.

How deeply involved are parents in both the application process and the actual education of the kids? 

With the enrollment cap, I’m sure we are going to get some more of parents who will get involved. It does seem like there are those parents out there that are very concerned about their son or daughter getting into a certain school and calling us. They’ll say, “My son is a high school sophomore, what can he do to get into Notre Dame?” And you are like, wow. They’re starting earlier and earlier.  I would say there is a minority that gets involved, but it has grown over the years. I think a lot of it is dynamics like investment and cost. It is a significant investment, and I think as a result they are being more engaged. They want to make sure their money is being spent wisely, and that students are indeed making the right decision.

What advice do you have for students and parents during the application process?

First and foremost, you have to be a strong student. Clearly to get into a top school, you have to apply yourself academically, and by that I mean the quality of the courses you are taking. In this day and age, there are the AP courses, but you need to have a strong math and English background, too.

I’d tell students to start way back when they are young, read a lot and get used to reading. The earlier you reading and the more reading you do, the better. It develops your vocabulary, your writing skills and your imagination. Students that are stronger readers do well in class and in their interactions with people and in standardized testing. Once you get to the university level, you’ll do well as a student because of your ability to read things, comprehend, write papers well and communicate effectively.

Once they get to high school, they have to manage their time and be a good student. It’s not all about academics. At Notre Dame, they look beyond academics. What kind of leadership do you show and are you involved in student activities? It’s not just saying “Okay, I’m an officer in a club.” Rather it’s did you start the club and what project did you work on? It’s the idea that I’m doing this because I have a propensity to lead and get involved. Those are the things that are critical.

You also need to demonstrate that you’re multidimensional and willing to get involved with the community and student life. Those are the things that the university is looking for.

At a higher level, 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.

What distinguishes Notre Dame’s curriculum from other undergraduate business schools?

It’s hard for me to say what distinguishes us, but I know that the things we emphasize inside of Notre Dame are the ethics and the integrity. Most of our courses have that as an element embedded in the course, whether it’s accounting, finance or pure ethics courses.

Social responsibility is an area where we’re seeing more and more growth. I think it is an area a lot of programs are as well, but here it is in things like microfinance in the third world to social entrepreneurship.

As a Catholic university it is embedded in our mission statement to act in a manner where we look after the human aspect of the community.

I think a lot of companies are counting on us to focus on that as well. Experiential learning is an area I think a lot of people are looking at, and one we are starting to explore a little more. We continue to look for opportunities to enter into programs with other schools and other universities across the globe to try to find way to expand internationally for our students to study internationally, as well as to bring international students to the university. These are areas that are priorities from the standpoint of the university.

What are some of the stories out there in undergraduate business education that you think are not being covered at the moment? 

I think the biggest thing is what students want to study inside the field of business. Business is a relatively narrow segment, and in general you can focus on management, marketing, finance, accounting or international business. There seems to be this thought process of, ‘Oh wow, if I’m not a finance major I won’t be allowed to get a good job or a high-paying job and it will limit me.” There’s a feeling with a lot of people that they need to go into that field, and often when it’s not even the right choice. We have actually had to limit students in that major. From a percentage standpoint, we have roughly about 10 to 15 percent more than we have the capacity to handle. It has been just recently, kind of like the numbers coming into the College of Business, that more and more people feel they have to go into finance. So there’s a little bit of the exponential factor going on. We could resource and try and get more faculty in the finance department, but it gets down to what is the right balance. Do we want to be the College of Business or the College of Finance?  Let’s try to dispel the idea that it is finance or bust. I try to convince students these days to be open-minded. We don’t want it to be much more than 40-ish percent finance majors, and we want to maintain a balance with accounting. We look for somewhere around 25 percent of students going into accounting, which we think is important, and 15 to 20 percent to be management majors. It’s all a matter of us wanting to have a diverse group of students who can compete in critical areas.

Do students in the business school have much interaction with MBA students?

The MBA program is really separate, other than perhaps some of the instructors. There is a lot of cross-pollination from the instructor standpoint, which is good from everybody’s standpoint. Obviously there are students who are strong students academically going into business in the undergraduate world who see themselves eventually going to an MBA program. We take that as a fact that this is going to happen, but don’t prepare them for that.

They have no classes together, rarely if ever because it dilutes the nature of the course. They’re designed for students to have a certain level of experience, and even though some of the classes may sound the same, strategic management at the MBA and undergraduate level are pretty much different classes. About the only time they every cross over is in a unique research-oriented type of course.


Lori Rosenkopf of Wharton

Carl Zeithaml Of University of Virginia

Dale Nees of Notre Dame University

Edward McLaughlin Of Cornell

Steven Malter of Washington University

Lawrence Murray of the University of North Carolina  David Platt of University of Texas

Andrea Hershatter of Emory

Lynn Wooten of Michigan

Idalene Kesner of Indiana University