Wisconsin’s Compass Aims for Work-Ready Undergrads

 University of Wisconsin's Grainger Hall in the Wisconsin School of Business.  - Jeff Miller

Wisconsin School of Business’s Grainger Hall, University of Wisconsin – Jeff Miller

“What do employers want?”

If you’re combing the want ads, you’d probably answer “experience.” In many ways, that’s code for the ability to fit in and get things done.

These days, employers expect graduates to do more than read balance sheets and write business plans. They’re also seeking “experience” – leadership, poise, teamwork, creativity, and conflict management. In the past, many schools assumed students would absorb these intangibles after landing a job. With graduates expected to hit the ground running, business schools are racing to teach and measure abilities that many consider innate.

Such concerns are inspiring pioneering curricula, such as the Compass program in the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Designed for undergraduate business majors (BBAs), Compass is a three-year program intended to produce workplace-ready graduates. At its core, the program focuses on helping students discover their values, strengths, and goals so they can make the best career decisions.

Wisconsin School of Business dean François Ortalo-Magné

“We take the best of the MBA program and scale it [to the BBAs],” says François Ortalo-Magné, the school’s dean.

“WHERE ARE THE REST OF THE STUDENTS?”

And that’s not easy at Grainger Hall, the facility where 2,500 BBAs take nearly all their business courses. Compass was launched in response to the sheer size of Wisconsin’s 43,000-student population. Kelly Cuene, director of student life for the BBA program, had noticed a drop-off in performance between majors who took advantage of the BBA program’s services and those who didn’t. Her team wondered if students were lost or just getting support elsewhere.

To close the gap, they looked for ways to reach out and build relationships. Sometimes, it could be a struggle to even determine students’ progress toward meeting requirements. That was particularly true for sophomores and juniors, often oblivious to just how quickly graduation comes. “We wanted to make sure all students were leaving with the skills they needed, not just the ones who were motivated enough to seek it out on their own,” Cuene says.

Kelly Cuene

Kelly Cuene, Wisconsin Business School BBA director of student life

This effort eventually developed into Compass, which launched in 2013. The program ties together the school’s academic, professional, and personal development programming. In particular, Compass jumpstarts student career planning. For faculty, it provides structure and consistency. “We always had guest speakers, career development, and networking events,” says Cuene. “[What we’re doing is] packaging up those opportunities for students in an easier way for them to see what’s going on, and what skills they might develop and at what event.”

MORE THAN CAREER DEVELOPMENT

Compass begins with a 15-week course for declared business majors. Held in the fall, it includes roughly 1,050 students in 40 sections, with each section taught by two student facilitators. It entails far more than completing career assessments and practicing resume writing and interview etiquette. Students also examine leadership styles, personal identity, power-based relationships, and the impact of diversity on campus and the workplace.