Dean’s Q&A: Lori Rosenkopf of Wharton

Does a degree in undergraduate business really pay off? How does it compare with other degrees in terms of employment and pay? 

Our students leave here and go into a wide range of different sorts of careers. Obviously there are a good number going into financial services and increasingly consulting, and that has been true for some time. Now we are seeing a dramatic increase in areas like business analytics, technology, entrepreneurship and the like. Beyond that, we have alumni in positions all over the globe in lots of interesting areas. The mayor of Philadelphia is a Wharton graduate. There are people going into government and people who are going to law school to become attorneys. So there are a limitless number of options people can take on.

In regard to career outcomes, the value proposition is that the average starting salary of anyone who graduated at a university last year is $45,000, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). Wharton undergraduates, according to our office of career placement services, have an average salary of $68,000 with their base salary and signing bonus. There are a lot of variations around those numbers, depending on what choices people make. Some students go to Teach for America afterwards, so they are making a different value proposition, though a great one. That’s a great starting block because people move on from those positions to something different.

At Penn, across the undergraduate class, engineering majors have a slightly higher average salary than business undergraduates, making $72,000. Our college of arts and sciences make $53,000, and nursing school graduates make $56,000.

We recognize that this is part of the value proposition for students and their loved ones advising them along the way in this process. We not only have an office of career placement services that is very active, but we have a tremendous alumni network of 92,000 people out there in the world in different sectors students are interested in working in. Our office facilitates the connections between those students and alumni, helping them with less traditional job searches as well.

What is the benefit of a four-year business program versus a two-year business program?

The four-year program actually winds up giving our students a lot of flexibility because it allows them to blend liberal arts exposure and business classes throughout the four years, rather than separating them into an intensive liberal arts experience and an intensive business experience. As a result, the outcomes are pretty interesting. It turns out nearly one-third of students graduate from Penn with a dual degree, meaning a Wharton degree and a degree from one of our other schools. Twenty percent of our students take a minor in one of our other schools. That’s not quite as big a commitment as other degrees, but still impressive.

Within Wharton, you have a concentration where people specialize in different areas. That concentration is tied to traditional business departments like accounting, marketing, managing and the like, and many of the concentrations are emphasizing new and interesting things like behavioral economics, social economics, retailing and the like. Fifty percent of students take more than one concentration. Students have to take one, so over a four-year period – if you think about how to mix and match pieces – we are doing it in a customized way that really fits their path.

In addition, we have four coordinated dual-degree programs we set up which Wharton students apply to as freshmen. We have 120 students across these programs. We have a management and technology program between Wharton and the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and a nursing and health care management program between Wharton and the School of Nursing. In the College of Arts and Sciences, there’s a life sciences management program and a program in international studies and business.

How deeply involved are parents in both the application process and the actual education of the kids? How has that changed, given the economic times, and how has the school responded?

There is certainly press about helicopter parents of millenials, but we really see a range of parents. We do have some who make an effort to be heavily involved, but also have some who are hands off. What is important for us is to acknowledge that we receive people on the verge of adulthood, and we treat them as adults as we interact with them as students.

We keep parents informed on the goings-on with newsletters and the like with the university, and host events where parents come in for the weekend to see students. There’s a whole suite of activities here, and we are definitely keeping parents informed, but our primary point of contact is with students who are students and adults. I won’t say I’ve never gotten a call from parents. I think most parents want their children to be learning like an adult and handling issues here.

Who’s doing undergraduate business education differently, and how is Wharton’s approach different from other schools? 

One of our strengths and challenges at the same time at Wharton is to be big and small at the same time. We are big enough to have the scope for ten different academic departments and the interdisciplinary stuff I mentioned earlier, but at the same time we want it to feel small for students. There is a host of smaller group curricular experiences and social, travel and networking opportunities. Things like that can make it feel small.

For example, this is our third year running a senior capstone course. This is an interdisciplinary simulation where small teams of students compete looking at business problems that span different departments and areas we provide here. Seniors practice in the preterm before the spring semester starts, and we then send teams of students to do coursework in a variety of countries. This year, there are three groups from the undergraduate division alone. One group just came back from South Africa over spring break, and we are sending two other groups, one to Hon Hong Kong and Macau, and another group to Greece and Turkey.

We also have global modular courses where undergraduates don’t go in groups themselves but go in a group with MBA students, executive MBA students and a professor.

I’m initiating a course and companionship trip next year that will give students more exposure to alumni in the San Francisco Bay area to the technology sector. They’ll study from Philadelphia the research articles and we’ll have alumni address us virtually to talk about different aspects of the culture. They’ll then travel out there to meet with alumni, and visit the Wharton San Francisco campus. Students will do research about that environment and see opportunities for future career paths as well.

All the top undergraduate programs are doing great things along these lines. One thing we’ve been doing for quite a few years is in our Management 100 course, one of our gateway courses where we put students in small team cohorts. Each team goes out into the community and does a service and social impact sort of project. For example, some recent projects they’ve done include raising awareness for groups like Givology, the Global Development Collaborative and the Agatston Urban Nutrition Initiative.  They are getting exposure to the West Philadelphia community, and are doing things that matter for the community. It’s important during this process that they have trained professors and facilitators who work with them to help evaluate how they are working as a team, taking on leadership roles and how they are communicating. There is a lot of opportunity for reflection built in during the experimental learning process. That’s a flagship for us and a lot of our students tell us when they get there that that was one of the reasons they come here, for that Management 100 class.

How does graduate level business education impact undergraduate education? 

I think there are a lot of synergies to the programs. We are doing several initiatives where we are bringing students from different age groups together, such as global modular courses. There are other initiatives that allow undergraduates to be paired with MBA students in groups or individual formats for mentoring or coaching. What we hear is that not only do undergraduates love the opportunity to look up to students doing things that undergraduates will aspire to, but by the same token older students get a lot out of being able to work with our students.

As an example, in a recent Wharton business plan competition that is still underway, in the semi-final round, one of the teams, govpredict.com, is a team of one undergraduate, one MBA and one doctoral student who have put together an analytics prediction tool that allows people to forecast the probability a congressional bill will pass, and the probably that a congressman or congresswoman will vote to pass it. They are looking at data that has to do with congressional voting records, as well as understanding bills. That’s a great example of the way having an undergraduate and graduate program in the same building and under the same roof really allows for a lot of complementation.

Another thing I’ll add on is that 18 percent of Wharton courses are cross-listed for both MBAs and undergraduate students are cross-listed, so sometimes undergraduate and graduate students will be in the same classroom together. What I always hear is that undergraduate students perform exceedingly well in class, and the teacher always commends them.

What advice do you have for both parents and would-be students in choosing a quality undergraduate business program?

I think that 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.

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