This past spring Bloomberg Business Week announced that 2016 would be the last year that the magazine would produce a ranking of undergraduate business programs. This was not a bad idea. Seventy-five percent of the ranking was based on surveys from graduates and recruiters; the remainder was based on student success at obtaining internships as well as starting salaries, adjusted for regional differences.

Whenever rankings weigh heavily on opinions on undergraduate business programs, or most anything else, you are likely to see them fluctuate wildly from year to year. That’s precisely what happened with the Bloomberg rankings of undergraduate business programs–and it probably explains why they are going away.

For example, Villanova, the top-ranked undergraduate business school for 2016, jumped 23 places from the previous year. Their men’s basketball team, which won the NCAA title around the same time the rankings came out, probably competed on a more level playing field. The reason for Villanova’s high ranking? The high scores on the employer and student surveys. The university, while well located near Philadelphia ranked only 29th for starting salaries. If you look down the ranking, Indiana University-Bloomington, the highest rated public school is actually the better buy. Indiana charges less for tuition and fees, room and board for a non resident than Villanova charges for tuition and fees alone while Indiana graduates earn higher starting salaries. Also, like Villanova, Indiana has also been quite successful in men’s basketball.

With these rankings going away, how should students and parents consider an undergraduate business program?

It depends on a student’s academic preparation and how serious s/he is about a business education.

The schools that appear in the Bloomberg ranking have one thing in common: they are accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), a global organization that includes over 1,500 schools as members, several are accredited, but several are not. Accredited business programs have a set of standards as do accredited accounting programs. Accounting programs must also offer arrangements to help students become a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) in the state where the school is located. This might be a joint bachelors/masters program in states where a CPA requires 150 credits of accounting, business and liberal arts courses.

Accredited business programs have similar entrance course requirements. These include not only introductory courses in Accounting and Economics during the freshman and sophomore years but also calculus and statistics. High school students who seek admission to the business school within a mid size or large university should have taken calculus in high school or be ready to take it in college after a rigorous pre-calculus course. If your high school offers Accounting and Economics, especially for honors or advanced placement, it would wise to choose these courses as junior or senior year electives as a preview for college.

Students who fear math will find an undergraduate business program exceptionally difficult. Those who are not willing to overcome the fear or seek help might want to consider other academic options. While calculus is rarely used within the business world, successful professionals in areas such as accounting, finance, human resource management and marketing are comfortable interpreting numbers and explaining trends derived from them.

Accredited undergraduate business programs at large and mid sized schools offer different options for admissions. Some will admit freshmen immediately and let them sink or swim. Others will admit freshmen to a pre-business track, then admit them to the business school as juniors, provided that they maintained a minimum GPA or better in the required courses. Some schools offer both options but make the transfer process a greater academic challenge for those who want to switch to the business school.

If you are serious about business and want to choose a college with a business school, then begin your education in the business school. It’s easier for a sophomore or junior to pull out than it is to get in. Keep in mind that some majors within an undergraduate business program might become “capped.” The demand for the major might be greater than the number of classes that can be offered. Colleges call these “limited enrollment” or “impacted” majors but they may be known by other names. Students who are neither prepared or confident that they can compete for a seat in such majors might want to consider business schools that offer more flexibility.

Hope to seek a good-paying internship? Then seek a school with a strong alumni base in a city where your student hopes to work and possibly reside after graduation. Some colleges such as Cornell, Indiana, Penn State or Purdue are quite isolated but there are alumni working all over the world. The upside? Students may have fantastic summer internship experiences. Downside? They cannot work in these internships during the school year nor can they always leave campus for interviews. Other schools such as Butler, NYU and Rutgers-New Brunswick are located in or near large cities. It’s often possible to build the resume during the school year as well as the summer. Another option is co-op, where students alternate between school and work for two or three years of their college degree. The best buys among schools that are well-invested in co-op? They are Cincinnati, Georgia Tech and Purdue.

Do you need a business education within a business school? Not always, but it helps when a college offers additional support for business students. A mid size or large school that has a separate undergraduate business school will usually have career services and internship assistance specifically for business students. The business programs will manage their own project-based classes, either case problems or actual work with clients. The business school will also engage students through the alumni base. Some, like Indiana, also offer a business minor for liberal arts students.

Do you need a business major to have a business career? If you want to be an accountant, yes. The coursework required to sit for the CPA exam is more stringent than it is for any other business discipline. If you want to work in management information systems, it helps to know the programming languages used in modern businesses and consulting firms as well as the business core courses. If you want to be in a profession such as quantitative finance that uses an industry-specific software package, it helps to get training and practice in that package while in college.

Liberal arts majors can succeed in business, if they acquire the right skills to complement their major. An economics major with strong skills in math and statistics can find work in finance as easily as a finance major. A communications or psychology major with similar mathematical skills can work successfully in marketing or advertising. For most college students a liberal arts major combined with core courses in accounting, economics and statistics will be fine.

The key is to try different occupations while in college through part-time work, community service or internships to find the best fit. While academic achievements are certainly a plus, businesses seek ambitious and motivated people who try to learn their world outside of the classroom.

Need help to choose a business program or consider a business major vs. another major? Contact me at stuart@educatedquest.com or call me at 609-406-0062.

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