‘Excellence At Scale’: Purdue’s Big Plans For Business Education

Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management

It’s interesting to see your undergraduate numbers rise so dramatically in light of reporting that demand for higher education at the undergraduate level is softening somewhat. Not necessarily in business education, and not necessarily at school’s with more national reputations, like Purdue. But does that trend factor in at all to your enrollment projections, particularly as college education has become so much more expensive and students look to alternatives?

I think there are a few pieces to this. Even as universities come up on the demographic cliff of a declining number of 18-year olds — and the fraction of those 18-year olds who go to college has been dropping for the last few years — we’ve been bucking that trend in a very significant way. In the last four years, we’ve almost doubled the number of applications to our business school.

The reason for that is probably three things. First, as everybody else’s tuition keeps going up, Purdue’s tuition has been frozen for a decade now. We are increasingly competitive as an out-of-state destination with a number of in-state tuition rates.

Second, I think that the overall reputation of the Purdue brand has been growing, and some of this is connected to the tuition freeze. We have a lot of top rankings for the university – most trusted, most innovative, these kinds of things – which I think have really helped to attract extremely strong application growth into the university as a whole.

The third piece, which is very specific to what we are doing in the business school, is that where we have launched these new STEM-oriented degrees – the intersection of business and engineering in one, and business and science in the other – we have seen just explosive growth in the applications into those programs. As an example, I want to say maybe a third of our applicants this last year were into just those two majors. And the students that we admitted into the programs have SATs scores like 100 points higher than our typical students. So huge volume, great interest from extremely high quality students coming from all over the country into these programs. We don’t see anything that would prevent us from continuing that winning streak.

Will you be looking at more of these kinds of STEM degrees as part of this move?

We will. I think the next piece is that the two programs I just mentioned in the undergraduate programs will grow pretty substantially, but we’ll start doing a number of new things on the graduate side. As an example, we’ll be launching a new PhD program in data science and business applications. The notion is to train students who are deep in data science methodologies, but who are applying that in the context of business problems.

The idea both feeds a growing demand among universities for faculty who can, for example, apply advanced machine learning techniques to investigate problems in finance, marketing, or accounting, as well as the huge demand in industry for people who are trained in that way. We will also be working to collaborate with our College of Engineering on some new programs, connected to things like managing disruptive technologies, leading innovation, and those kinds of things.

Anything at the executive level?

This is one I probably can’t name names on, but we have been working with some companies where a great deal of the workforce are engineers and scientists. They are deeply skilled in their fields, but lack some of the financial acumen that companies need for them to succeed. Whether it’s sort of connecting the science pieces to a P&L (Profit & Loss) statement or understanding how to lead people, there are lots of business skills that scientists and engineers need to be highly successful in a corporate context. So we have two or three major contracts with technology oriented, science and engineering companies because of the work we’re doing at the intersection of engineering.


How long has this Big Move, to use Purdue’s phrasing, been in the works?

In some sense, the roots of this are from the earliest days of the Krannert Graduate School of Industrial Administration. The school was founded back in 1962 as essentially a finishing school for engineers. The main product offering we had was a one-year MS program for scientists and engineers, and we gave them this incredibly intensive crash course on business fundamentals. Those folks went on to extraordinary careers, an amazing number of CEOs and founders have come out of that program.

Over the ensuing 50-something years, we sort of went increasingly in the direction of doing what everybody else is doing – offering residential MBAs and the full suite of the usual kind of business functional degrees. Over the last five years or so, we’ve had conversations with our Board of Trustees about recapturing some of the early magic that really made the school so special. It fits so well with what Purdue does as a university. My colleagues in engineering like to joke that they’re the No. 4 ranked undergraduate engineering program in the country, and they’re bigger than the top three combined.

So that’s this excellence at scale piece. There’s always been this sense of, as the business school on a STEM oriented campus, how do we take advantage of those assets? Perhaps the biggest catalyst in this was Mung Chiang, the president elect, who was the engineering dean for the last five years. He was really instrumental in working with us to make a meaningful collaboration. We were able to accomplish a level of collaboration in curricular design and now increasingly in joint hiring of faculty that really integrates those disciplines.

So, we are sort of recreating the essence of what made the school great 60 years ago, but in a way we see as being incredibly relevant and important for today’s companies.

What do you think distinguishes Purdue’s business programs, or will distinguish them, from other programs that are trying to be more interdisciplinary and integrated?

You know, we’ve looked pretty hard at other schools that do things jointly with engineering programs, for example. We don’t know of anyone who is integrated as deeply as we are or on the scale that we’re operating on. Some schools will operate pretty small, very high quality cross disciplinary programs, but we intend for this to be something like 40% of our undergraduate population. I think that’s one thing that’s really pretty distinctive.

There’s another piece of this that is going to be very important. There’s a program that our liberal arts college launched a number of years back called Cornerstone. The idea was to substantially upgrade a classical liberal arts experience for undergraduates at Purdue by using transformative texts. So, as students taking their English or their communications class, for example, they’re using texts that, from antiquity to modernity, are particularly relevant to the disciplines they study. Every school has an undergraduate core curriculum that covers liberal arts, but ours will be a lot more intentional and focused in order to significantly upgrade our students’ abilities to write well, speak well, and interact well, but doing it in the context of texts that are really foundational to the role of business in society, how the markets function, the roles of shareholders and stakeholders in businesses, and all these kinds of questions. The Cornerstone program within liberal arts is a nationally award winning program, and we’re taking the best parts of that and applying it in our context.


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