Repost Wednesday: Teaching Students to take Risks

I came across a blog post the other day, from Courtney Johnston:

In college I did all the right things. I had a job, did my homework and followed the rules.

But my college courses failed to teach me one thing: how to take risks towards making my dreams a reality. I’m not even sure college tried to teach risk taking. Syllabuses and grade scales are definitely anti-risk-taking mechanisms.

They teach us how to follow rules, not be bold.

They teach us how to do what someone else says, not to be creative.

They teach you how to be comfortable, not to be curious.

I fear she is right. This issue has been troubling me for a while. We teach people how to quantify, analyze and mitigate risk. We discuss that people have different degrees of risk aversion and explain to students the risk-return trade-off. But what we don’t do is teach students to actually take risks in their professional lives.

Frankly, most students already come to us with a conservative mindset. Many parents promote college attendance because they believe it is the safest way to a good life. It is seen as the minimum risk choice.

Once students get here, we stress skill development, getting things precisely right, and conforming to professional norms. We tell them what to do in lectures, challenge their ability to provide the “right answers” in exams, manuscripts, and oral presentations, and penalize them with poor grades when they get it wrong. I fear the message is: “follow others, play it safe.”

But we all know that a key to entrepreneurship (and life) is risk taking. At some point, we all have to be willing to give up a sure thing in the pursuit of something of potentially greater value. I have never met an entrepreneur who didn’t tell me a story about how they went to bed one night after striking out in a new direction fearing that their new venture wouldn’t be viable in the morning.

The core of the university experience rightly focuses on intellectual development, but I also want to help students nurture their entrepreneurial talents, among them the willingness to take professional risks. The challenge is to create an environment that develops and tests for strong analytic, technical and inter-personal skills but also demands that student take risks, that they sometimes fail and that they learn from failure.

Developing an aptitude for risk-taking is one of the reasons I encourage students to get out of their comfort zones. Leading a student organization; participating in competitions; studying abroad; getting to know people who are different from themselves; are all activities that require risk taking. These activities can help students learn to adapt and perform in new and stressful situations where the outcomes are uncertain and not entirely within individual control.

But co-curricular activities alone are likely to be insufficient if for no other reason than they reach only a modest number of students. Those students who need these confidence-building experiences the most are least likely to seek them out. So we faculty are going to have to figure out ways to create classroom environments that encourage, assess, and give students feedback on their risk-taking propensities. Developing assignments and valid rubrics that assess risk-taking are part of the answer, but what is really needed is a culture that celebrates this quality through story-telling, incentives and role models. And we have to create this environment recognizing that many students are not going to be happy about this because they would prefer the safe and comfortable route. So it is important that college administrators develop mechanisms that encourage faculty to engage in innovation and risk-taking in the pursuit of instilling these qualities in our students.

I want the Courtney Johnstons of the world to develop the courage necessary to take professional risks that will help them realize their dreams. It is time we get this done.

Sharpening Our Focus

When you are new to a place, certain things just jump out at you. When I got to UCF in July, I noted we had a lot of different MBA programs. Some were administered on campus, some off-campus. Some targeted seasoned business professionals, others relative novices, some I wasn’t sure who was the target. Most programs didn’t care much if your undergraduate degree was in business or zoology–a few remedial courses could get you up to speed. And the evening program seemed to accommodate anyone at any pace. I questioned whether we were using our resources wisely and whether we would benefit from sharpening the focus of our offerings: in essence doing more by doing less. I asked the faculty whether they were wiling to take a look at these programs and give me some advice. Several people raised their hands, went to work and gave me some suggestions.

This spring, we took those suggestions, combined them with our own administrative assessment and began to work with the Masters Program Review Committee to make some changes. To better coordinate our offerings, rationalize student recruitment, ensure students are admitted into the right programs and have a well differentiated portfolio of programs, I am appointing Dr. Robert Porter Director of MBA programs. We will also be consolidating the graduate office, elements of the EDC staff and eventually Career Connections into a one-stop shop for all of our MBA programs under his direction. Dr. Porter will work closely with the MPRC on admissions, curriculum, career services and student performance issues. Greater faculty participation in these areas is key to program success.

We have also made some changes to our on-campus programs. Starting this fall, the evening lock-step MBA program will return to the practice of being an exclusively part-time program. And, our one year daytime program will only accept students who do not have an undergraduate business degree.

So, if you are a recent graduate looking to diversify your knowledge set by adding a business degree and can commit to a full-time immersive experience, then the one year MBA is the option for you. If you are a working professional with an undergraduate business degree and just a couple of years of real world experience under your belt, then the evening lockstep program is for you. You can continue to work full-time and complete your MBA by taking two courses a semester along with everyone else in that program. If you have been working for five years or more and are looking to move into a management position, the PMBA is the option for you. You can continue to work full-time and take courses two nights a week along with a group of seasoned professionals like yourself who are looking to move up in their careers. Finally, if you have ten years of experience, are in a middle management position and are looking to move into a senior management opportunity, then the EMBA is the right option for you.

Note that with these changes our MBA offerings do not provide something for everyone. This is by design. If you have just graduated from a business school and want to jump right into a full-time MBA program, I’m sorry but we don’t do that here anymore. You will need to find a different school. If you are working full-time and want to pursue your MBA full-time, we don’t have an option for you either. In fact, we think that is a very bad idea–you are trying to take on more than you can handle and our experience tells us that when push comes to shove, you will choose work over your education to the detriment of everyone’s classroom experience. If you have just graduated and want to pursue your MBA in the professional or executive format because these are the only ones that fit your schedule, we are sorry but you don’t have the type of work experience necessary to be an effective member of the student teams we are putting together for those programs. It would be a disservice to both our faculty and the experienced professionals who are signing up for these programs to let you in. You will have to wait or go elsewhere. Perhaps the comfort and flexibility of an on-line degree is best for you.

These changes are just the beginning. Moving forward we are going to take a hard look at our daytime MBA offering, explore partnerships with other schools on campus and look to make changes in the curriculum that get students out of their comfort zones and promote effective cross-disciplinary communication, risk-taking, and data-driven decision-making among our students. There is much to be done, but our goal is to have the majority of the changes in place for Fall 2014 . Stay tuned.

Repost Wednesday: Student Loans

I subscribe to several Twitter feeds.  One is on higher education. A lot of posts with the #HigherEd tag are by institutions, but a fair number are by college students.  Following their tweets is a good way for me to see what is on people’s minds and understand the challenges that college students face.  It will surprise none of you that student loans and lending policies are a hot topic.  They are even a hotter topic now that when I first posted this entry about a year ago.

Interest rates on unsubsidized student Stafford loans are high.  Student loans are for ten years and currently carry a 6.8% rate.  To put this into a comparative context, a twenty-year fixed rate home mortgage is at about 4%, a five-year auto loan at about 3.75%.  And unlike your home or car loan, you can’t walk away from your student loan. Discharging a student loan in bankruptcy is extremely hard in part because the lender can’t repossess your education like it can your car or house. So it is important that you take a good hard look at the numbers when making the decision to finance your education through loans.

A little data can go a long way toward bringing some reality into your decision-making process.  Table 1 reports median starting salaries and earnings at mid-career for people with different undergraduate majors.  I want you to note two things: (1) there are big differences among majors.  The typical chemical engineer earns more than twice as much after graduation than the typical child/family studies major; and (2) these differences get larger by the middle of careers because majors in the top part of the table enjoy much greater salary growth than majors in the bottom part of the table.

Table 2 shows why this is important.  Here I have converted annual salaries to monthly figures for four different majors.  I then assume these majors take out unsubsidized loans at 6.8%, accumulating $60K, $40K, or $20k of debt over four years.  $20K of debt is about what you would accumulate at UNLV if you financed all of your tuition payments for four years through student loans.  $60K is about the current aggregate limit on Stafford Loans for undergraduates.
The percentages in the table show how much of your gross monthly earnings from your first job would go just to repaying your student loan each month.  So a chemical engineer who took out $60K would expect 12.8% of their gross monthly earnings to go to loan repayment.  Notice that this is gross earnings–earnings before taxes.  For a family studies major who took out $60K, that amount is 28%!!  Yes, you can expect some growth in your income over time, but note that at mid-career the typical family studies major still isn’t making the starting salary of a finance major.  A finance major who takes out $60K in loans is devoting almost twenty percent of their gross income just to student loan repayment.   Notice you haven’t eaten, paid your rent, or put gas in the car yet. If you are a family studies major with $60K in debt, pray for inflation–it is a debtor’s friend.

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Now, there is a fair bit of variance around the median numbers reported in Table 1.  Some child and family studies majors, perhaps those that go to ivy league schools, will earn more than the typical graduate with the same degree. And, some chemical engineers, perhaps those who go to really bad schools will earn much less than the typical graduate.  But, I seriously doubt that those ivy league family studies majors are going to earn anywhere near what the typical chemical engineer can expect upon graduation.

The bottom line is this: Getting a college degree is about much more than just dollars and cents, but some majors offer way bigger financial returns than others.  If you believe that your future job will be the sole source of your ability to pay back your students loans (not your parents or a rich spouse), you want to do a calculation similar to this and ask yourself just how much of your expected income over the next ten years are you willing to devote to loan repayment.   Some loan reform is coming that should lower rates, but keep in mind that experts suggest that no more than 10 to 15% of your starting salary should go to loan repayment. Someday soon, the government may do this for you by putting debt limits on student loans based on your expected earnings. Until then, it is up to you to determine just how much debt you are willing to take on to get the degree of your choice.

Judging our Progress

Not by the number of students in our classes, but by the number of meaningful exchanges they have with each other, faculty and alumni.

Not by the number of majors in the college, but by the number of high-achieving students from across campus who enroll in our courses.

Not by the number of students we graduate, but by what they do after they leave us.

Not by the number of papers we write, but by the number of people who read them.

Not by how well we are known in our own buildings, but how well we are known off-campus.

Not by how satisfied we are with the status quo, but by how restless we are to change it.

Not by the degree we advertise the data we like, but by our willingness to confront the data we don’t.

Not by our desire to be everything to everybody, but by our commitment to create a unique culture that attracts the very people we seek.

Repost Wednesday: An Insider’s Take on Choosing an MBA Program

So you are thinking of returning to school to get your MBA. You google “MBA Rankings” and start looking for a top-ranked school in a good location at an affordable price. The rankings are a good place to start. Programs that score high deliver on their promises to students (and employers) and help graduates achieve their career goals. But realize that different programs make different promises to students. They attract different people hoping to get different things out of their MBA experience.

Most obvious is the difference between full-time and part-time programs. Part-time, or working professional programs as they are sometimes called, appeal to students that have great demands on their time and are looking for an efficient vehicle for gaining the credentials they need to move up in their current firm, change jobs or start a new career. These students tend to favor practitioner-oriented programs that play to their work experience and stress immediate relevancy over the development of a deeper perspective based on a rigorous conceptual approach. Some of these students will choose an on-line option because they are drawn to the combination of convenience and efficiency offered by such programs. In contrast, full-time students are making a much bigger commitment of time and lost wages and are typically looking for a more immersive experience that will up-grade their conceptual abilities and produce results over a longer time horizon.

You can see these differences in the rankings. The top of Business Week’s full-time program rankings is a list of elite schools presented largely in the order you would expect. Academic prowess and reputation rank supreme. The part-time rankings, on the other hand, offer several surprises. The number one program, Elon has students with very average GMAT scores and almost ten years of work experience taught in very small sections. Number three, Carnegie Mellon has students with half the work experience of Elon, who are taught largely by non-tenure track faculty (i.e. practitioners) in much larger class sizes.

But other differences matter too. MBA programs don’t have a commonly-defined set of pre-requisite experiences, required undergraduate majors, or selection criteria. The general applicability of the degree (MBAs are employed everywhere) attracts a broad range of students with a wide range of interests, talents, and aspirations. Some MBA students hope to start their own business or work for a small firm. They are likely to be drawn to more generalist programs, that stress entrepreneurship, strategy and a comprehensive view of business. Other prospective MBAs are looking to move up in the corporate world. They tend to have strong technical skills in engineering, finance, or the sciences and are looking to augment those talents with managerial skills. Still others want to change careers. They may be liberal arts majors with creativity and strong communication skills who have never taken a business course in their lives and are looking to improve their data-driven decision-making abilities in one or more functional areas of business.

And then there is the fifth year business school “senior” who simply can’t leave the fraternity house and thinks an MBA might be the best way to stick around for another year or two. Unless you too want to join the unambitious, run from programs who admit these students. If you are a fifth year senior go get five years of experience before enrolling in an MBA program. If you won’t listen to that advice, at least go to a different institution from the one where you got your undergraduate degree. Otherwise, you are likely to hear many of the same professors share the same insights with you that they did when you were an undergraduate. It’s not like they were keeping secrets from you until you became a graduate student under the belief that “you couldn’t handle the truth.” Yes, they will offer you material in a more sophisticated manner, but the difference is rarely enough to justify you going to that same institution immediately upon graduation.

The bottom line is this: Your MBA experience will be heavily influenced by the students around you. Be wary of programs that claim they can be all things to all people. Diversity in students’ industry backgrounds, types of work experience and cultural perspective are big plusses. Diversity in student expectations about program goals, approaches, and outcomes tends to breed dissatisfaction and dissent. Look for a program that has a strong sense of itself, the type of student it wants to attract, and what it is trying to accomplish. Take the time to dig deep and ensure you are joining a program that draws the kinds of people you want to be around and compete with both today in class and tomorrow in the business world.

What Lies Ahead

The quilt is complete. The holidays are over. The AACSB Review Team has left the building. So my starting point for our discussion of a vision for the College is this:

I want us to lie at the cross-roads of both town and gown: to become an engaging place where people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives meet to get out of their comfort zones, collaborate across disciplines, take risks, and use data in ways that revolutionize how we think, create value and shape the future.

The rationale for this view will be the subject of my comments Friday night. The conversation about how we can embrace this vision and move from aspiration to implementation begins this Monday at 3:00 pm with the MPRC. It will continue in many venues over the next two months. For now, suffice it to say that achieving fundamental transformation will require us all to “walk the talk” by getting accustomed to living on the edge, overcoming failure, engaging in positive restlessness and getting rewarded for the right results.

I can’t wait to get started, but Tiffany says I have to dish up some of Brian Wheeler’s Gumbo in the Courtyard first.

Repost Wednesday: An Insider’s Take on Choosing a College

I knew where I wanted to go to school when I was seven years old. Michigan had me with the winged helmets. Fortunately, when I got there they had a pretty good economics department too. This was fortunate because I went to Ann Arbor to study astronomy. Plans change.

Students have more information about colleges today than I did when I was making my choice. Universities have elaborate websites and produce materials that describe their programs and the student experience. Several news outlets (e.g., Business Week, U.S. News) now rank universities using a variety of measures. Frankly, most of this stuff isn’t very useful when deciding to attend one institution rather than another.

As far as the rankings go, being at a top 25 school is better than being at a top 50 school which is better than being at a top 100 school, but the national reach of academic reputation declines rapidly after the top 50. If you want to change the world or become a leader in your profession some day, attending a top academic institution helps. It gives you access to extraordinary people and opens doors. Yet even schools with great reputations differ in ways that will impact your experience. You want to explore these differences and find a school with an environment that is going to help you reach your full potential whether it is in the top 50 or not. To help you assess fit, you will need to meet with people from a few schools and get answers to a few questions:

(1) What qualities or traits does the school want to instill in graduates and how do they do this? Schools will tell you that they produce “ethical decision makers,” “risk-takers,” “innovators” or “data-driven decision makers”. Such labels are nice, but make them give you specific examples of how they develop these qualities in their students. Then ask yourself if this is the type of experience you desire and whether these traits are the ones you want to develop while you are in college.

(2) How much access do students have to the most prominent faculty on campus? The person in front of the classroom is the most important part of your education. All that fancy technology, nice living spaces, and great workout facilities they are going to show you doesn’t change this reality. You want to learn from experts whose insights and experiences change how you view the world. Some schools only use prominent faculty in graduate courses. Undergraduates never see them. Other schools require their most prominent faculty to teach students at all levels. Don’t take administrators’ responses to this question at face value. Talk to students who go to the institution. They will give you the real story.

(3) How much structure is there to the student experience? All schools will tell you that they have programs, but most really just have lists of courses students need to complete in order to get a degree. There is a big difference. Programs create experiences that build relationships and common perspective. So for example, students may take classes in a sequence together in small groups (called cohorts). Or they may have culminating cross-disciplinary experiences that consume an entire semester of courses. If you know what you want to do when you graduate, highly structured programs have many advantages, but they do restrict choice. If you are undecided about your major, you may want a school that is less structured and allows you to explore topics without slowing down your progress to graduation.

(4) What do you offer students at your institution that will help me stand out in the job market? Elite universities have reputations that other institutions can’t match. Once you get out of the top 50 institutions, universities need a different answer to this question. Maybe it is the opportunity to work with a professor on a consulting project. Or, maybe it involves exposure to cutting-edge technology. Or, maybe it is an internship that allows you to work and study in another country. Make sure you know what these opportunities are, how they will further your career, and how likely it is you will be able to take advantage of them.

(5) What does the school do to connect students to people in the profession? Almost all universities offer career services, but don’t expect them “to get you a job.” Trade schools do this, universities don’t. What the school can do is help you understand professional norms, build your professional network and get you in front of potential employers. Some schools have strong alumni networks that help students transition from college to employment. Others incorporate professional development courses into the curriculum. Still others provide internships or one-on-one mentoring programs. The more connections you can make in college, the easier it will be to successfully transition to employment. Also make sure to ask what percent of students have a job in their chosen field within three months of graduation.

The answers to these questions, along with the ones you develop on your own, should give you a much better sense of whether a specific institution is right for you. This is an exciting time in your life and the decision you make in the next few months will have a big impact on you for years to come. Take the time to be proactive and make a good choice.


Tomorrow Everyone is in Sales

Tomorrow 192 employers will be in the UCF Arena looking to add people to the payroll. The entire list of participating companies and the types of majors they want to interview can be found here.

If you haven’t already put together the right look for tomorrow, made twenty copies of your well-polished resume, done your research on the five companies that interest you the most and googled and read “successful career fair strategies,” I can’t help you. You are already toast. Game over. Go see Calvin or Lonny so you can be ready next time.

If you have done these things, you are already ahead of many of tomorrow’s attendees. So, just a few words of wisdom in the spirit of helping you over the top.

When I talk to employers and ask them what they are looking for in new hires, I get the same answer that I give others when they ask me: I am looking to hire winners. Winners have certain characteristics that jump out at you:

1. They are confident without being cocky.
2. They have fire in their belly. They are never passive.
3. They never tell you that they are great, they show you that they are great.
4. They are articulate and engaging.
5. They are optimists who believe in what they are doing. It is never just a job for them.
6. They are always looking to improve, learn from others, and grow.
7. They are results oriented and always want to know what’s next.

So tomorrow when you greet that recruiter, you need to be able to tell them why you are excited about what their company is doing and what experiences you have had that will lead them to think that you might contribute to their team. You need to show that you have a track-record of success and that it will translate into their organization because you care about what the company does, not because you need a job. (Everyone there needs a job.) And you should communicate all this in no more than two minutes. There will be a lot of people wanting to talk to the recruiter so you won’t have much time. Do not leave the conversation without asking what the next step in the hiring process will be and what you need to do to get into the next round of interviews. If during the conversation you find you are no longer interested in the company, thank them for their time and move on. If you find they do not believe you are competitive for a position with them, end by asking what you can do to improve your chances for employment with them in the future and thank them for the advice.

It is also important that you go into tomorrow with realistic expectations so that you don’t get disappointed if the first few stops don’t work out the way you planned. If you lose your mojo during the day, it will be hard to get it back and this will show during your visits. You are not going to be offered a job on the spot or set up a site interview. For employers, this phase of the process is more about identifying good applicants than selecting among them. So don’t ask about compensation or other terms of employment, it will not leave a good impression. What you are hoping to get out of your efforts tomorrow is two to three good concrete leads. These are stops where you know you made a good impression, understand what it takes to advance to the next round and have a specific plan to follow up with this contact. Do not forget to properly follow up: make sure you get their business card and write a thank you note for taking the time to visit with you. We live in such a graceless age that simple acts of uncommon courtesy, like hand-written thank you notes, really stand out.

Finally, wear your UCF education proudly during the day. It is common for employers to send recruiters who are alums of the school or who have had good experiences recruiting students from that school. If the recruiter is a UCF alum, chances are that they would like nothing better than to stick it to their coworkers from more established schools by adding more great UCF alums to the payroll. More generally: people have a bias toward people who are like themselves…(i.e.. “I see a lot of myself in her”). If during the conversation you learn that you and the recruiter share a work-related experience, draw attention to it in a positive way.

Now get some rest. No partying tonight. You will need your A-game first thing in the morning.