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Everyone's Business

August 24, 2012

In the two decades or so since a handful of business schools started launching intensive summer courses for students with liberal arts backgrounds, high demand has led some to expand their enrollment. More recently, other business schools are investing in the idea, with one piloting its new program just this summer.

The demand for these business school programs, particularly in the last few years, indicates at least in part their potential to help students break into a tough job market – Villanova University’s Summer Business Institute, of instance, enrolled students in record numbers the last two years, numbers that have been climbing since the 2008 recession triggered a one-year dip in otherwise steadily rising demand. The 10-week, $9,200 program, now in its 16th year, most recently drew 112 students.

Students and college officials say the courses have impact in macro and micro terms. While they can expose students to career paths they might never have considered or even know existed, they also teach more practical skills that students can apply in whatever field they do end up in. Each program has its own personalized focus reflecting the institution; the University of Chicago's Summer Business Scholars, for instance, emphasizes psychology, sociology, accounting, economics and statistics when teaching students to apply business fundamentals "to assess any challenge or opportunity." But regardless of where it's housed, a summer program typically places students in immersive courses teaching basic business skills and principles, and may move to more focused areas like economics, marketing, finance and management. Career development and professional skills like teamwork and communication tend to be part of the package. Some draw from the university's M.B.A. curriculum.

"There's a lot of students who really want to be studying art history, they really want to be studying philosophy, but they still want to be employable. I think this type of program allows them to do both," said Andy Chan, vice president for personal and career development at Wake Forest University. "Many young people, especially in college liberal arts, have not been exposed to the world of work.... Going through a program like this is a great way to get exposed to business, to understand how organizations operate."

For Brian Twibell, a rising senior in economics at Indiana University at Bloomington, the new Art of Business program was a last-ditch effort this summer at advancing his career prospects that wound up paying off in more ways than he expected.

After doing a few internship interviews, Twibell says, “I realized pretty fast that I had no idea what I was doing. I learned a lot in school, but I didn’t know how really to get a job or be successful in one.”

Twibell mastered Excel, which he’s now using on statistical projects similar to those at the companies he’ll apply to work at. But one of the biggest things he got out of the program was less tangible. After taking an aptitude test, Twibell realized that his prospects were far broader than he had thought. He’d already planned to go into sports business or marketing, and always thought of himself as more creative than analytical. But the test turned up positive results in Twibell’s analytical skills, which he can apply, for instance, to a project modeling the predicted success of fighters for a mixed martial arts company.

“I would rank it probably as the most valuable thing I’ve done since I went to college,” Twibell said. “More than anything, what it gave me was confidence.” Other well-established programs, which vary in focus, length and price, include those at Southern Methodist, Stanford and Vanderbilt Universities, and the Universities of Chicago, California at Berkeley, and Virginia. Prices range from about $5,000 to $10,000, and while most don't award academic credit, some do offer funds to students. The Villanova program, for instance, awarded five partial tuition scholarships this summer totaling more than $13,000.

The Tuck Business Bridge Program at Dartmouth College just finished its 16th run and has been at capacity – around 130 students – for the past decade. Nicole Faherty, the program manager, said Dartmouth could expand it if not for a lack of available space. But the relatively small size (the program is split into two sessions of 65 students each) works well because it allows students to get to know each other and is a draw for the Dartmouth faculty who teach in the program. The curriculum is based on the first year of the Tuck School of Business’s M.B.A. program. 

While some students with liberal arts and science backgrounds have secured jobs either directly through the program’s alumni and career days -- and many more have been able to apply the skills they learn in whatever job they land on their own, be it in marketing or non-profit work --  that’s not the aim of the program, Faherty said.

“I don’t think we focus it so much on, ‘All these students must get jobs.’ We’re not here to support job placement, we’re here for providing the tools for them to make them more employable,” Faherty said. But she acknowledged that finding a job is probably the top draw for the students who do enter the program.

“These are mostly liberal arts students going to smaller schools. They are competing for the same types of jobs that undergraduate business majors are competing for,” Faherty said. “A student with an English degree from Williams College may not be able to show that they have the capacity to do a position maybe as well as a Wharton Business School undergraduate could. But then they can say, ‘I have this great critical thinking background from a liberal arts degree, plus I have business experience.’ ”

Students definitely stand to gain career-wise from the programs, said Chan, who previously directed Stanford's M.B.A. Career Management Center. (Wake Forest does have a summer program in this vein, as well as a fast-growing, one-year master's of arts in management program designed for liberal arts and science students just out of undergrad.) Understanding and being able to articulate these basics can be incredibly helpful in job interviews, Chan said, whether a student is looking for work not just at non-profit or for-profit companies, but also in government, medicine and law.

"So many organizations need you to know how a business operates. This type of education can help you with that," Chan said. "You can work in any organization in the world and get value from business education."

At Villanova, students who enroll in the program consistently say they do so for job-centric reasons. For the past five years, four of the five top reasons for enrolling were “entrepreneurial career goals,” to “provide career direction,” to “gain competitive edge,” and for “professional development.” To “understand business principles” was the third most-cited reason. (Villanova does not track actual career placement because getting participants jobs is not the mission of the program, officials there -- and at other programs -- said.)

It worked out for Amanda Del Balso, an alumna of Tuck Bridge who now works at Google as an online media account manager (meaning she helps financial service companies in New York develop their online marketing strategies). Del Balso didn’t go in looking to get a job out of it, necessarily – that was more of a happy accident.

“Not having really the exposure to the business world in undergraduate – that was what attracted me to the Bridge program,” said Del Balso, who enrolled right after getting her degree last year in psychology and international studies at Boston College. But once in the program, she discovered an untapped passion for marketing, in which she could make use of her undergraduate work in entrepreneurship, leadership and problem-solving. Following a Bridge networking event, Del Balso was interviewing with Google within two weeks (and her potential employers were more interested in the Dartmouth program than her undergraduate work). She started the job in September.

“I don’t think it would have been a consideration for me before Bridge,” she said. “It really helped me see that marketing was where I fit – and I think that’s part of the intention of the program.”

Bloomington’s Art of Business program just finished its inaugural summer. It took place over the last three weeks of June (without an optional corresponding summer internship), with five students enrolling.

The idea for the program, based at Bloomington's Kelley School of Business, grew out of conversations between its director and an alumnus who attended Hanover College for his undergraduate degree. Both were interested in how to develop a relationship between the two.

“As we did more research into it, we discovered that Hanover was not unlike a number of other liberal arts colleges – a great education, but probably not as much focus on helping kids discern where that education takes them post-college, and then very limited training in, once you figure things out, how do you go about seeking employment,” said John Talbott, director of the program. “We wanted to really honor the education that students are getting and respect what they’re learning, and basically just say, ‘Look, what you’re doing has a lot of applicability in organizations.’ ”

The program centers around three major components: career “discerning and preparation,” the language of business, and a practicum in which students consult local organizations on how to meet their objectives. (A student triple-majoring in biotechnology, physics and mathematics even got the physics club to collaborate on exhibits at a local children’s science museum. Another student helped the university’s public television station start an internship program.)

With a different focus each week, students learn about engaging (where they learn collaboration and communication skills), marketing (of the student to future employers, investors and customers, with a special eye toward social media and digital technology), and strategy (students create “a personal roadmap for success”).

Like the others, Bloomington’s program is not cheap. For three weeks of courses, materials and “most meals,” students pay $4,950. For $600 more they can get housing, too. Talbott believes the cost was a deterrent to some students, but hopes to better address that in the coming years.

“I think what we have to do is a better job of framing the cost,” he said. “The fact is, the full price of the program without scholarships is about equal to a three-credit class – and the educational hours are twice as many.”

But students who sign on shouldn’t do so lightly.

“It is a very intense commitment,” Del Balso said. “I studied more for Bridge than I did the entirety of my senior year at Boston College. And I was writing my thesis.”
 

 

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