Mendoza Undergrad Dean Sees Trends, Misconceptions in Biz Ed

The University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. Photo courtesy of the Mendoza College of Business

2015 was a milestone year for the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. For the first time in its 100-year history, the business school implemented application-based enrollments. What used to be an open door for any and all incoming freshmen with a desire to pursue business as their undergraduate major was now a gated community that required admission.

The impetus, according to Dale Nees, the assistant dean for Undergraduate Studies at Mendoza, is a problem that’s being seen in undergraduate business programs nationwide: a disproportionate amount of students clamoring to get into their college or university’s business school. At Notre Dame, enrollment in the College of Business historically took up about 25% of the total university student body population. Just before the switch was made three years ago, the college was hovering around 38%.

Nees has served as assistant dean for the past eight years where he oversees academic advisors working to ensure students get from enrollment to commencement, all of the undergrad program’s academic policies and procedures, and each aspect of the program’s curriculum. In the interview that follows, the assistant dean shares what makes Mendoza unique, why the school was forced to restrict admission, and the top trends he’s seeing in business education — including the one that has him feeling most on edge.

P&Q: What makes the undergraduate business experience unique at Mendoza?

Nees: First and foremost we value a balanced liberal education. Half of students’ curriculum has to be in Liberal Arts, the other half is the traditional business education. This develops a broad context, critical thinking, writing skills, and much more. Because half of the curriculum has to be in Liberal Arts, a good number of them will pursue a second major beyond business. In fact, as many as 40% will take their elective space and they’ll use it to pursue a second major outside the college. Some students are even adding two majors. It gives them the opportunity to concentrate in an area that might be of interest to them or they can just go off and dabble and explore.

Dale Nees is the Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Studies in the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. Photo courtesy of Mendoza College of Business

Second is our focus and emphasis on ethics and values. This goes back to 1921 and the founder of our college, Father John Cardinal O’Hara. His mission back then was that business is there to support humanity. When businesses flourish, so does humanity. That’s fundamental to our brand here and it’s a big interest of our faculty. Everybody says it, but it’s been core to our values for 100 years now.

The third thing is our huge alumni network. We’re global and we have 250 alumni clubs in the United States alone. We launched something here recently called Irish Compass that’s available for all of our students. It’s a mentorship tool that allows current students to sign up and search for a corporate sponsor, job leads, or even job shadowing. You can go on and get access to a CEO to find out what it really means to work in corporate finance. It’s a great discernment tool. When you couple this with our broad network, I think it offers unique exposure and unique networking for our students.

The last thing that’s unique to us is we have a research-based course called Junior Research Challenge: Foresight in Business and Society. Students take it their junior year and it’s designed to challenge them to identify major issues and trends impacting society — specifically looking ahead to the future. They then explore implications that can drive innovation and solutions. The purpose is to get students to think outside the box and to look forward. Then they all have to do a research project and presentation.

In 2015, Mendoza began having students apply to get in. What sparked this decision?

The impetus for this was a problem we were seeing nationwide. Historically, for schools that have business programs, at most 25% of student body would go into business. At Mendoza, just before we implemented the change, we were getting close to 38% because we had no restrictions and no restraints. The university would offer admission to 700 students who said they were interested in business and we might have gotten 300 or 400 of those accept the offer and come to the university. Then in the spring at the end of year one, all of a sudden that 300 turned into more than 500 when it was time for students to declare their majors and lock in the college they’d be going into. By the time everyone declared, we were well over 700 students coming into the business school. We started to ask ourselves, where are they coming from?

Because you’re only talking 2,000 students in total, the other colleges — as well as Mendoza — said, ‘We have to do something here.’ Do we want to call it the University of Mendoza at Notre Dame? Of course not. That’s not what we’re about. Working with university admissions, we looked at peer institutions and adopted a model similar to others that would keep the numbers more balanced; somewhere more around 27% of the university’s total student body.

All criteria to get into Mendoza is ran out of admissions. We’ve shared our thoughts with them and said we’re interested in students with some general criteria. For instance, getting more women in business because we think that’s important. The College of Business can fluctuate wildly; sometimes 30/70 or 40/60 for women/men. We want the diversification and we want to make sure admissions is looking at this. Other than these general interests, right now we leave the initial admissions solely in the hands of the university admission office.

What was causing such huge spikes?

I think when you’re a #1 ranked business program, it’s like anything else. Success grows success and numbers grow numbers. Our placement data is very good as is our salary data. Students talk to their peers and they start to feed off of each other. Then they figure, ‘I can just walk over and be a business student.’ They haven’t even taken a business course yet, but they’re making the call. A lot of it is perceptions and peer pressure from seeing what everyone else is doing, but it was leading to quite an imbalance.

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