B-Schools That Create The Best College Experience

Minnesota's Carlson School of Management placed highest in the "signature experience" and global immersion portion of P&Q's alumni survey of 2014 graduates.

Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management placed highest in the “signature experience” and global immersion portion of P&Q’s alumni survey of 2014 graduates.

Blake LaBathe’s first guiding moment of his undergraduate business education came from an unlikely source at an unlikely time. He and a group of students were bussed to a YMCA camp on the shores of Lake Independence, about 25 miles from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management-—in the dead of winter. Part of Carlson’s LeaderShape program, the excursion brings together 50 business and engineering students for a week where they learn how to build a “just, caring, and thriving world where all lead with integrity,” according the the program’s mission.

“We learned about leadership, community, and the world,” recalls LaBathe, 21. But the ah-ha moment came during a late night conversation with fellow Carlson freshman Raphael “Raffy” Maristela. “He told me how important it was to remain humble and hard working,” says LaBathe, who will be graduating from Carlson this spring. “The words, ‘stay humble’ and ‘stay hard working’ have remained in my head ever since.”

The timing and setting of LaBathe’s key experience might be unique, but the fact that it happened is not. According to Poets&Quants’ survey of alumni from the leading undergraduate business schools, no other school is more likely to provide a “signature experience” or global immersion than Minnesota’s Carlson School. Some 71% of 2014 alums reported having a signature experience–defined as a major experiential learning project, retreat or thesis–and 83% claimed to have a global immersion during their time at Carlson, which finished 12th in this year’s rankings. The survey was done as part of the debut Poets&Quants 2016 ranking of undergraduate business schools.


“To us, it’s not a surprise,” says John Stavig, the director of the Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship at the Carlson School. “I think we were the first school 10 years ago to require an international experience for all of our undergraduate students. That clearly has an impact. But also experiential learning is at the core of what we do.”

Indeed, the school’s stellar performance was buoyed largely by the high percentage of students experiencing a global immersion, more than 20 percentage points higher than the 60% at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign‘s, which came in second place in global experiences. Alumni from Elon University’s Love School of Business reported the next highest percentage of global immersions at 50%. For signature experiences, no other school’s alumni reported higher exposure than those at Northeastern University’s D’Amore McKim School of Business, at about 78%, which was propelled by its well-known, co-op program. Boston University’s Questrom School of Business finished close behind at 77%, with alumni citing the school’s Core program as the main driver.

When the two categories were averaged, however, after Minnesota Carlson, the next four schools providing their students with the most signature experiences and global immersions were Northeastern’s D’Amore McKim, Elon’s Love, Boston’s Questrom, and the University of Texas-Austin’s McCombs School of Business, respectively.

Why is this aspect of undergraduate business education important? The days are long gone when students were simply marched through a series of classrooms, taking a set of core classes and then picking form a menu of electives to major in a specific business discipline. Real consulting projects with companies and trips abroad to expose students to different cultures and economies have now become table stakes at the best business schools.


Blake LaBathe, a senior at Minnesota's Carlson School of Management will be working full-time at Microsoft after graduation this spring. Courtesy photo

Blake LaBathe, a senior at Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management will be working full-time at Microsoft after graduation this spring. Courtesy photo

For LaBathe first became interested in business after taking a sports marketing class during his freshman year of high school that, he says, was a “marketing class disguised as a sports class.” Choosing in-state Carlson wasn’t part of his original plan, but once the Minnesota native looked into Carlson’s highly pragmatic curriculum, he was convinced the school was the place for him.  “There wasn’t a school as career-focused as what I saw at Carlson,” insists LaBathe, who also visited and looked over such rivals as Wisconsin’s School of Business, Texas’ McCombs, and Michigan’s Ross School of Business. While those schools touted their own strengths, with Michigan Ross pushing consulting and Texas McCombs pumping up accounting, LaBathe didn’t know exactly what career path in business he would eventually take. All he knew is that he wanted to study business.

And that defining career-focused approach is what stands out in LaBathe’s mind as his undergraduate experience wanes. The summer after his junior year, LaBathe came back to campus from his financial services internship at Polaris, a leader in producing and selling powersports products, with a full-time offer in hand. He stepped into Xiaoji Zhang’s office — an assistant counselor at the Carlson School Undergraduate Business Career Center. “I like the work I did but didn’t love the company,” LaBathe recalls telling Zhang.

Zhang, who has a masters in counseling psychology, did exactly what is expected of a counselor. She talked with LaBathe about his passions and career goals and where they aligned. And then she convinced LaBathe to turn down the offer. Two weeks later, LaBathe received an email from Zhang with some internship descriptions at companies she thought LaBathe would be interested in. A week after that, they bumped into each other in a Carlson hallway. “I barely recognized her, but she’s like, ‘Oh, Blake, how are you doing? How’s recruitment going? Did you get my email? Are there any companies you’re targeting now?'” LaBathe recalls.

When LaBathe did find his dream internship-—a financial analyst gig at Microsoft-—Zhang was there ready to do a mock interview right before LaBathe flew from Minneapolis to Microsoft headquarters in Seattle. This time, LaBathe accepted the offer after completing the internship, he says, beaming over the phone, and will make the move to Seattle after graduation this spring. “I realized for every bit of work I put in towards my own career, Carlson was going to match that,” LaBathe says. “They were going to put in just as much work to make sure I was achieving my dream career and my dream goals.”


While personal touch and attention seem to stand out in the minds of students, many schools have made significant curricular and extracurricular changes to broaden the swath of potential impact experiences. This year, Minnesota Carlson’s international requirement garnered the best feedback. “When we put that requirement in place, it was something the entire school got behind,” Stavig says. “And a result of doing that was we needed to create interesting options for the students.”

Stavig says some of those innovations came out of the entrepreneurship department he heads. For example, entrepreneurship courses began building a portfolio of short international experiences for undergrads. “A lot of courses we specifically developed to support that requirement,” Stavig notes. Most recently, Carlson incorporated a trip to Cuba in Steve Spruth’s entrepreneurship course. “I’ve never seen a more excited group of students,” says Spruth, a senior lecturer in the school’s strategic management and entrepreneurship department . “They could barely sit in their seats the first day of class, which is rare. That tells me that we’ve created an experience that people realize is hard for them to have on their own. You want to say you were in Cuba before it changed.”

Visiting a country like Cuba takes the international experience to a new level, Stavig believes.
“Spending a semester in Europe or Australia, in my mind, doesn’t count as a transformational learning experience,” says Stavig, noting he encourages students to spend time in both developed and developing countries. “Working on projects with individuals and companies in these developing countries and trying to solve real challenges as you work through the cultural differences is dramatically different and significantly more impactful for the students.”


At Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, which finished eighth overall on the signature experience and immersion test, the most talked about experience among alumni is the school’s integrative core (I-Core) program. Dubbed internally as the “Kelley rite of passage,” the four-block course program is designed to combine what students learn inside and outside of the classroom from the first two years of their undergraduate experience. I-Core is part of a trio of curricular additions recently made at Kelley. The other two are the Kelley Compass, which according to the school, is the “DNA” of the Kelley experience and includes three courses taken during the first three years of the program and the Global Foundations Core.

“The challenge we identified a number of years ago, when we redesigned our undergraduate curriculum, was how could we create a program that could both equip and empower students to find and follow their passions,” explains Joshua Perry, the chair of the undergraduate program at Kelley. “It’s to really discover what they want to do with a business education and then to guide them successfully into a chosen career.”

Perry says that Kelley adopts a “self-discovery” approach to business education and is a result of a top-down approach to “creating the best undergraduate business experience in the country.” Unlike many other schools “where Ph.D. students and teaching assistants are rolled out,” Perry notes, some 99% of the courses at Kelley are taught by full-time faculty members. Perry admits many schools that “place around” Kelley in the rankings likely have some sort of “derivative” of what Kelley does, which is true. Be it Northeastern’s co-op program, Minnesota Carlson’s international requirement, or Boston Questrom’s CORE offering, many schools have unique ways of offering a meaningful experience. But according to alumni perspectives collected via our alumni survey, some schools are better at it than others. Either way, students are increasingly looking for experiences beyond traditional classroom instruction.

“Education isn’t about memorizing content anymore,” Minnesota’s Stavig insists. “That has dramatically changed.”

See the following page for the programs most mentioned as “signature experiences” by the Class of 2014. Those programs are not listed in any order. The final page contains a percentage ranking of how schools performed in the “signature experience” and global immersion category on our alumni survey.

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