For Dean William Keep, college is akin to playing with a timeless set of toys.
“Coming to college is like getting a pile of Lego’s,” the dean of the School of Business at The College of New Jersey, referencing what he tells his incoming students. “If I give you a pile of Lego’s, you know you should build something. I don’t know what you should build, but I know everyone of you will build something different. We’re going to give you the Lego’s. Some of the Lego blocks are required and some you can choose on your own. But if you go to an interview and your resume looks like a pile of Lego’s you won’t get the job.”
And so the stage is set for business students and the mid-sized public university in Ewing, New Jersey. A four-year program, students may either decide on one of five majors immediately freshmen year or they may enroll in the “Open Options Program” in which they spend the first two years taking required business courses before settling into a major. But the curricular side of things takes backseat at TCNJ.
“For us, the secret to differentiating ourselves has not been curriculum,” Keep explains. “And that might seem a little odd, but in my 25 years of higher education, I have seen time and again schools think the solution to attracting and keeping students is to come up with the next curriculum twist. I think chasing students with curriculum is a mistake. I think the key is having students walk away from their learning experience here or going back and talking to their families and friends about the internship they got, about the event they went to where they met the founder of some cool company, that’s what I think is important.”
One of the ways the school does that is through the Five Signature Experiences program, required for all TCNJ students. Students engage in global lessons, community service, leadership activities, research, and a personalized education that begins during their first year with the living-learning first-year experience and stretches through to a capstone research course. Throughout the five signature experiences, the main consistency and emphasis is high contact and mentorship with faculty — something Keep has also emphasized within the business school.
While TCNJ might not chase students with fancy curricular changes, Keep does emphasize faculty engagement with students. “Whatever the topic, whatever the level — freshmen, sophomore, junior, senior — we really want the classroom experience to stick in the students’ minds,” Keep says. “We want to feel as if it was a memorable experience.”
ALL BUSINESS CLASSES CAPPED AT 33 STUDENTS
One way Keep has attempted to create a memorable classroom experience is by capping course enrollment to 33 students, despite being the largest department on TCNJ’s campus. He also slashed faculty meetings and committees. When Keep arrived at TCNJ in 2009, he says faculty meetings happened every month. Now they happen once or twice a semester.
“I work really hard not to have a lot of meetings with faculty,” Keep insists. “I work hard not to have a lot of committees or a lot of meetings. I want faculty to feel like what I am trying to do is support them as educators. What I don’t want faculty to do is think teaching is secondary to this committee meeting they have to run off to.”
Keep’s assistant dean, Tammy Dieterich adds a good point.
“You can’t ask faculty to spend quality time with their students and not give them the time to do that,” she adds.
And it’s certainly paid off. Besides recommending the school to a close friend, alumni from the Class of 2014 rated the faculty’s willingness to meet and mentor outside of the classroom higher than 10 other aspects of the program — and on par or higher than many other competitor schools.
MORE THAN HALF OF 2014 ALUMNI REPORT HAVING A ‘SIGNATURE EXPERIENCE’
Jillian Young is one of those graduates. Focusing on international business, Young chose an international law professor to help guide her focused senior thesis research capstone project. “It was a really great experience to work on a more independent level, one-on-one with a professor, and writing and learning about a very specific topic that I got to pick,” Young says.
Indeed, Young is not alone. Some 81.25% of the Class of 2015 said they had an important “signature experience” — again, much higher than the average of all Poets&Quants’ top undergraduate business programs — many of which indicated that experience was their senior thesis project. It’s not surprising more than half of the class indicated they had a key signature experience. Student engagement is at the top of mind and to-do list for Keep and Dieterich.
“Student engagement is like a goal you never can get to because I don’t know what that end is,” Keep admits. “But it’s something you strive for and we create multiple ways to try to do that.”
STUDENT-RUN INVESTMENT FUND AND BUSINESS PLAN COMPETITION HIGHLIGHT EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES
One of those ways is the student-run investment fund, valued at more than $350K. Under the guidance of a faculty advisor, about a dozen students each semester analyze and choose investment strategies. “All participants were forced to pitch an investment idea whether it was to sell or buy certain stock,” one 2014 alum said of the experience. “This forced me into real world thinking with a portfolio that had real consequences.”
Another highlight and way in which TCNJ students can get real-life experience is with through the Mayo Business Plan Competition. When TCNJ kicked off the business plan competition in 2012, the total awards summed to $20K. Each year the available funds have grown by $10K to $50K where it is now. “A team of four developed a business plan where we presented to a room of over 200,” one 2014 alum said. “(It) taught us a lot about the intricacies of starting a business and gave us an entrepreneurial skill set.”
Another highlight from the alumni survey was Strategic Management — a required course for all seniors majoring in management.
“Strategic Management was a very high level course that often had classes filled with discussions between students and the professor,” one 2014 alum said. “The class was broken in five-person groups to complete two major projects of an audit and recommendation for a real company. The presentation for each project was an hour and a half.”
Said another alum: “This was very helpful in learning to think about businesses in a comprehensive view, where actual problems exist and there are limitations in resources.”
TCNJ PROVIDES A BUSINESS DEGREE AT A REASONABLE COST
At less than $60K for four years of in-state tuition and about $102K for four years of out-of-state tuition, TCNJ is also one of the cheapest schools on the Poets&Quants top undergraduate business schools list. The elite business education combined with cellar prices caught the eye of Young and something she thinks high school students and their parents should consider.
“I think it’s an amazing campus experienced mixed with some rigorous academics,” says Young. “Many professors I met personally were really interested in the students. So I think for the price of the school and how important it is to pay off your debt when you get out, it’s important to pick a school like TCNJ over a Princeton and it’s not that big of a trade-off.”
Where the Class of 2017 went to work:
Johnson and Johnson: 5
Grant Thornton: 4
JP Morgan Chase: 2