After years working as an MBA admissions director, Lawrence Murray jumped at the chance to work with undergraduate business students at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School back in 2008. He’d worked with undergraduates earlier in his career at the University of Arizona, and was eager to spend time with them again, this time armed with his extensive knowledge of the management education world, he said.
“You have a little bit of a longer life-cycle with undergraduates,” said Lawrence, who has been director of the undergraduate program at Kenan-Flagler for the last five years. “It is more fulfilling, you get to know the students better and see their growth and development over a longer period of time.”
Under Murray’s leadership, Kenan-Flagler’s undergraduate business program has become a draw for students, especially those interested in launching careers in the nearby Research Triangle Park, home to leading computer, pharmaceutical and technology companies.
Applications to the two-year program have been on the upswing for the last five years, and it is getting more competitive for students to get into the school, Murray says. At the same time, the school is trying to make sure it keeps it foothold in what is becoming an increasingly competitive undergraduate business school landscape. Most students start coursework their junior year, but the business school recently introduced a program that allows high school seniors to apply for early admission. Those admitted can start their coursework as early as the fall semester of their sophomore year.
The school’s intimate feel, small class sizes and strong applied learning programs have helped the school maintain its footing as a top ten undergraduate business program in Bloomberg Businessweek’s undergraduate business school rankings, where it has held the number ten spot for the last three years.
Poets&Quants’ Alison Damast recently spoke with Murray to get his thoughts on why an undergraduate business degree is so coveted, why liberal arts students shoul take advantage of the business school and benefits of pairing up MBA students and undergraduate students on projects.
There has been a spike in interest in undergraduate business programs in the last few years. What do you think are some of the reasons for it?
Yes, without a doubt that it true. What’s behind it is the economy, the fluctuations in the economy and I’m going to use the word “noise.” I don’t mean it in a negative sense but the noise around the value of an undergraduate degree and the value of a liberal arts education has thrust many of these professional schools into the limelight. I think that has definitely seen students drive more towards some of these pragmatic, practical and applied types of degrees that prepare them for a job after college.
How are you seeing this trend play out at Kenan-Flagler in regards to applications?
We definitely have seen an increase in applications and interest in business over the last five years. Every year for the past three years, we’ve seen an increase. In 2009 we saw a five percent increase in applications, and in 2010 and in 2011, we saw two years of more than ten percent application growth. And for the most recent admission cycle, we’ve had a four-and-a-half percent increase in applications. If you look at students who are indicating they are interested in business, we’ve seen an increase on the universal applications as well.
With so many more applications, is it getting more competitive to get in?
For us this is the first year of our most recent admission cycle where we dipped below 50 percent in terms of our admission rate. This year, our admission rate was 47.5 percent. That’s the first time in the history of us doing applications that it was that low. That is good, but it is a double-edged sword for a two-year program. We don’t want the program to become too competitive because that prevents students from applying to the University of North Carolina, but there is a value to having a competitive application process, and it has an impact on a wide variety of activities. So it is this delicate balance that we are trying to reach.
Some of this growth in application volume is coming from us going out and doing more defined outreach programs because what we are trying to look for is students who might be good business students who might not have known to apply to business school. We are going out to find students who never would have thought to be a business major or minor. We’ve worked closely with undergraduate admissions at the university to appeal to students who are pre-University of North Carolina students, but we don’t have the bandwidth to do anything before students get to the university. The bulk of our recruiting efforts happen once students get here.