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Bard Brings Finance Into the Fold

August 2, 2007

Think Bard College student and what comes to mind? More likely someone writing a play or conducting an experiment than checking a Bloomberg box.

But officials at the liberal arts college want to be open to educating the future day traders and financial analysts. Those are some of the students who they say will benefit from a new dual-degree program that's debuting this fall. Bard is offering a bachelor's of science degree in economics and finance as part of a five-year arrangement in which students also receive a B.A. in a traditional liberal arts field -- languages and literature; science or a social studies field other than economics, for instance.

The program is geared both toward students interested in working in the financial world and those wanting a career in arts and sciences who want to learn more about finance, college officials say. Bard has long offered economics courses and five years ago added classes in finance.

"We were surprised that many of the courses were oversubscribed," said Dimitri Papadimitriou, executive vice president of Bard and president of the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, a nonpartisan public policy research center. "We found that a number of students who had graduated with majors in other fields had an interest in going to Wall Street. It was time to do something more."

In the new program, students take more than a dozen classes in subjects such as corporate finance, money and banking, industrial trade, statistics and economics. Students have the same general education requirements as others at the college, including the senior project required of bachelor's of arts students. In addition, dual-degree participants will complete a final project in finance and economics -- likely a financial or business plan.

Undergraduate programs in business and finance are hardly the norm at traditional liberal arts colleges, and Bard officials are careful not to use the "B" word when describing the program. The academic focus is on general economics and finance; there are no marketing courses and only one accounting course, Papadimitriou said.

"That's what differentiates our program from a business program," he said. "A business program goes against a liberal arts and science education. It's not what we're about. Our program is heavy on economics -- classes that combine theory and policy. And we aren't offering the program by itself."

Leon Botstein, Bard's longtime president, said the program adds another attraction to a liberal arts education without "corrupting it as being pre-professional."

"These are skills that [students] want to have as entrepreneurs," he said. "We can't predict who will be interested in this, but we know it will expand students' options who want a jump start on a practical offshoot."

And for Bard, it's a way to integrate the work of its economics institute into its undergraduate program, Botstein said. He added that he sees the program as an alternative to the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and other undergraduate dual-degree programs.

Bard's program is starting small, with about 10 students expected in the first year. Papadimitriou said he would eventually like to see four or five times that many people enrolled. He said he hasn't heard of other colleges offering a dual-degree program with a financial emphasis, though he has heard of some going the certificate route.

Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, in conjunction with the College of Arts and Science and the School of Engineering and Applied Science, announced earlier this year it is offering two certificate programs for undergraduates who want to pursue a career in business – especially in financial services or consulting. They are intended, in part, for those who want to go to business or law school. The first certificate program starts this fall, with about 50 students expected. Previously, Kellogg has concentrated on students who already have a bachelor's degree, with an emphasis on the MBA.

Debra Humphreys, vice president for communications and public affairs at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, said a number of the group's members have incorporated some professional education courses into their curriculum, and she doesn't characterize those efforts as moves away from a liberal arts education.

"From our point of view, the liberal view of education is a philosophy; you can get the education regardless of your major," she said. "When people criticize colleges [for offering these courses], it's more that they are too narrowly focused, not that they are poisoning the purity of liberal arts. Outcomes are most important."

Humphreys pointed to a poll that the organization released last winter showing, among other things, that employers want colleges to emphasize critical thinking and team work. One conclusion: Those hiring look at skills learned and aren't as interested in what major a student chooses.

The question colleges should be asking, Humphreys says, is whether their new programs provide students with access to a broad education beyond what's learned on a vocational track. "In the case of the Bard program, does it contextualize business and offer courses that help students develop broad skills?" she asked.

 

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