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Not Just Business as Usual: Exploring an Undergraduate Business Degree

Despite the recession, a business education is still a hot commodity—and if you’ve found yourself glued to MarketWatch.com, thinking about how to launch your great business idea, or wowed by the impact of Twitter and Facebook on customer service, you might want to consider a school with an undergraduate business program.

There are many undergraduate business programs in the country, offering a wide range of opportunities for students interested in fields such as finance, accounting, international business, real estate, marketing, information technology and entrepreneurship. Many students even see the current financial crisis as a reason to go into business, or double-major, as having a solid skill set could be a key asset when getting your foot in the door during a shaky job market.

Recently, publications such as BusinessWeek have begun to publish rankings of undergraduate business programs. While these rankings can be helpful, it’s crucial to make your choices based on the factors that are important to you. We’ve compiled a few important things to keep in mind as you conduct your research.

Private vs. Portal 
State schools such as the University of Virginia, the University of Michigan, and UC-Berkeley are considerably less expensive than private schools. Even out-of-state tuition for state schools, although more than in-state tuition, is generally still less than private school tuition. If you’re looking to stay close to home, check out the business programs at your local university, they might surprise you.

Business vs. Economics 
Make sure the schools on your college list offer programs that interest you and fit your needs. You may have your heart set on business at a small liberal arts college – but many small liberal arts colleges only offer economics, which is not the same. Other schools, like Cornell University, offer business programs at the graduate level only, and business-related fields are offered as minors to undergraduate students.

Type of Program
Schools vary in how they structure their undergraduate business programs. Some schools, like the University of Pennsylvania and American University, offer a completely integrated program. This means that you start out as a student in the business school and spend all four years taking business and non-business-related courses. You complement your business studies with courses in the social sciences, humanities and sciences throughout all four years. These programs integrate the university’s requirements with those of the business school. For example, if you were interested in business and the Chinese economy, you could take Asian studies classes, or perhaps pursue fluency in Mandarin.

Other schools, like the University of Virginia (UVA) and Tulane University, offer business programs that are separate from the main undergraduate arts and sciences programs. Students take two years of general educational classes, spanning from mathematics to the humanities, and then apply for their major (in this case business) at the end of sophomore year. The advantage of such a program is that you get to benefit from taking a higher number of electives outside of business. Like the integrated programs, you can explore areas that interest you, but in most cases you would take the majority of these classes before entering the business school. This approach may help you feel more liberated to take courses completely unrelated to your business studies that still interest you.

It’s important to note that students at UVA and other two-year programs apply to the business program separately. So, while you may attend Virginia as a freshman and sophomore, there is no guarantee you will be admitted to McIntire, the business school, for your junior and senior years.

Career Placement Services/Alumni
With the radical changes taking place on Wall Street and in the general economy, landing a job this year was quite difficult. Five or more years from now, when you graduate, the situation will be different from what it is today. Regardless of the financial climate, a strong career services program will be an asset. Be sure to look into a school’s Career Placement Services Office. Research or ask about programs that the career center offers – such as workshops on networking, resumes, public speaking, or opportunities to be mentored by successful alums.

Specialized Programs
If you have strong interests in multiple areas, including business, it may be useful to investigate specialized business programs. For example, Lehigh’s Integrated Product Process and Product Development (IPD) Program integrates design arts, engineering, and business. Student teams produce technical and feasibility studies, design mock-ups, develop working prototypes and prepare business plans for real clients. At the University of Maryland, students may participate in one of 11 interdisciplinary programs collectively known as “College Park Scholars.” These programs, including one titled “Business, Society and the Economy,” are living-learning programs where students take classes together and live together in selected residence halls. Still other schools offer business plan competitions for entrepreneurial students, which are sometimes open to students in other programs across campus, such as the sciences. The University of California at Irvine and Rochester Institute of Technology are just two examples – winning student or teams receive money to fund their ideas and turn them into real companies.

Teaching Methodology 
Undergraduate business programs employ a variety of teaching methodologies. For example, UVA only uses case studies, which are real-life scenarios that students analyze and discuss to develop and hone their business skills. Other schools, like University of Pennsylvania use a mix of case studies and lectures. Still other schools primarily use lectures. You need to ask yourself which method aligns best with your learning style. While teamwork is a major component of undergraduate business education, it is also useful to research programs that provide opportunities to work as a member of a team solving real-life problems. For example, Georgetown students get the chance to manage an investment portfolio, and when they graduate they have a lot to offer in the financial industry.

Undergraduate business schools offer a wide range of programs for students – with a little research, you can identify schools that offer interesting programs and opportunities. Hopefully we’ve given you a few things to think about. Exploring the undergraduate business options available at schools that interest you may yield a successful business career and years of happy returns. Who knows, you might become the next CEO of American Eagle Outfitters (like James O’Donnell, an undergraduate business alumnus of Villanova University).

 IvyWise 2009