New Looks at the Old BBA

Two undergraduate business programs are re-examined to create more integrated, meaningful, and relevant educational experiences.
New Looks at the Old BBA

As the flagship program at many business schools, the MBA has long garnered the lion’s share of resources and attention. Over the last few years, in fact, the MBA has been the target of comprehensive redesigns, as business schools aimed to make their graduate programs more innovative and relevant. During this time, the BBA has remained largely in the shadow of its educational big brother.

Attention has shifted, however, as more business educators view the BBA program as a point of distinction for their schools and brands, rather than the lesser sibling to their graduate offering. Many schools are looking for new ways to provide undergraduates with more integrated coursework and more memorable, meaningful educational experiences. Two schools that have been through this process—the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business in College Park and Drexel University’s Bennett S. LeBow College of Business in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—share the directions they’ve taken to design their brand-new BBAs.

The BBA—Resized

The Smith School redesigns its undergraduate curriculum to combine small-school community and big school opportunity.
by Howard Frank

For many years, the BBA program at the University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business was no different from those at many other business schools. Our program offered a number of courses and major concentrations but was not designed to offer an integrated educational experience. Students completed their general academic curriculum during their freshman and sophomore years; then, as juniors and seniors, they were “thrown over the wall” from the general university into the business school, with little orientation.

Two years ago, we decided that our BBA program had to be as central to our mission as our MBA, and we began the ongoing process of reinventing our undergraduate curriculum. The result is our new Smith Undergraduate Fellows Program, which launched with our 2006–2007 freshman class. Our aim for the Fellows Program is to offer undergraduates the specialized experiences and personal attention of a small school, as well as all the interaction and opportunity our large campus can provide.

Big by Nature, Small by Design

Before we began our BBA redesign, we studied seven other undergraduate business programs. We paid particular attention to those at New York University’s Stern School of Business and the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. The Stern School’s program was large, serving approximately 2,000 students; it offered a weeklong orientation to incoming freshman, a freshman honors program, an executive lecture series, mentorships, and subsidized international travel. Kenan-Flagler’s program was small and personalized, serving about 600 undergraduates, providing a number of experiential opportunities such as its global scholars “living and learning” program.

The NYU and UNC programs represented to us the best of two types of undergraduate environments—the diverse opportunities of a large school and the personal community of a small school. More important, these two schools weren’t just allotting resources to their BBA programs. They were treating students as individuals, each with his or her own personal academic and career aspirations.

We knew we would have a challenge to offer both types of environments in one program. NYU could draw on more resources than we had to support a BBA program; with its smaller student body, UNC was better positioned to offer individualized educational experiences. It seemed impossible to find the time, staff, and financial resources to give each of our 2,800 undergraduates a specialized educational program.

Our Smith Undergraduate Fellows Program, however, allowed us to accomplish our educational objectives, within our budget, by building these capabilities into our existing structure. The program divides our large freshman class into eight smaller cohorts. Each group then progresses through a series of whole-class activities and specialized academic concentrations. By creating smaller educational tracks within our larger academic structure, we can offer students the advantages that both small and large campuses have to offer.

Community of Fellows

As Freshman Fellows, students begin their undergraduate experience in our freshman lecture course, “Introduction to 21st-Century Business.” This course is divided into eight sections of 30 students each. Students also participate in other large, co-curricular courses over their freshman and sophomore years, including a one-credit practicum in ethics and corporate social responsibility, a one-credit practicum in professional development, and a one-credit career explorations course.

In their freshman and sophomore years, students study, work, and play with their smaller cohorts, participating in activities ranging from movie nights to service projects. During their four years as Smith Fellows, our undergraduate cohorts participate in internships in the United States and abroad, field trips to businesses across the country, visits to the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, and retreats and conferences that foster leadership skills.

Beginning in their junior year, Smith Fellows will apply to one or more of 11 educational tracks, which include entrepreneurship, electronic marketing, supply chain management, global opportunities, Quality Enhancement Systems and Teams (QUEST), the Business Honors Program, the Accounting Information and Assurance Teaching Scholars Program, the Lemma Senbet student-managed investment fund, Reuters Financial Certification, the Six Sigma Fellows Program, and the Smith Research Fellows Program. Each track accommodates from ten to 100 students, allowing them to specialize in specific areas of business without sacrificing their general business education.

The structure of our tracks system gives us the freedom to try new things, fail, and try again, with the least amount of organizational trauma.

In the entrepreneurship track, for example, we offer four courses on the principles and practices of entrepreneurs, as well as co-curricular activities with the Smith School’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship Fellows participate in projects and workshops, help organize business plan competitions, and meet entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. In our international track, students who have expressed an intention to earn dual degrees in business and a foreign language will take part in study-abroad experiences and summer language immersion courses. Our International Fellows also have the opportunity to live in an on-campus Language House, where they will speak in their chosen language at all times, and to pursue international internships. Each track takes a “learn-by-doing” approach that gives students a jump-start on their post-graduation careers.

On the Right “Tracks”

The Fellows Program marked a true break from tradition for the Smith School. As a result, we knew we would need to address several challenges to put the program in place:

Changing the mindset. While our faculty acknowledged our undergraduate program as important, many viewed it as less vital than the MBA program. To get faculty excited about our new Fellows Program and tracks system, we began an intense campaign to promote the potential of our new BBA to faculty.

Convincing the administration. For any business school to make major changes to its undergraduate program, it first must gain the buy-in of the university’s administration. In our case, C.D. “Dan” Mote Jr., president of the University of Maryland, had recently issued a challenge to all departments to provide students with a “special program experience.” As a result, when we announced the creation of the Fellows Program, senior university management expressed great enthusiasm for the new venture.

Finding enough faculty. We must create enough smaller tracks to accommodate each one of our 2,800 students. However, each track requires a substantial commitment of faculty and staff.

Finding the funds. We knew that the Smith School would be the main source of funding for the Fellows Program. We jump-started the program with $9 million of a 2005 gift by our namesake, Robert H. Smith. The university, alumni, and other corporate partners also demonstrated their support through scholarship and special funding.

Making it fast and flexible. Finally, we knew that our new model would have to be designed with built-in flexibility to allow for trial and error. The experimental nature of the Fellows Program allows us to roll out tracks almost immediately, as quickly as the next academic year. For example, we recently started a computational marketing track. The new track isn’t a marketing major, but rather an overlay on our overall tracks system. Consequently, we don’t have to jump through the usual university hoops that require us to define the major and then present it to a variety of program committees for approval.

Now that we have offered the new computational marketing track to the first group of juniors, we are committed to offering it for two years. We have the option to change, refine, or even eliminate it after two years. The structure of our tracks system gives us the freedom to try new things, fail, and try again, with the least amount of organizational trauma.

New BBA, New Possibilities

Only in its inaugural year, the Smith Undergraduate Fellows Program has already benefited our school in significant ways. For instance, the Fellows Program has created a wave of faculty innovation. The challenge has captured their energy and imagination—and harnessed their inherent competitiveness—as each department tries to create the best new Fellows tracks.

We realize that we still have questions to address: How will the selection mechanism work for each track? And in how many tracks can students participate? Undergraduate students have tremendous energy and appetite in enrichment programs, and some Smith students already participate in multiple opportunities. However, students’ appetites for learning may inspire them to take on more than they can handle. The Smith School must consider these issues as we move forward. While we want our students to take advantage of opportunity, we also want them to keep their educations as balanced and focused as possible.

We also plan to encourage more cross-disciplinary collaboration, including a number of joint recruiting programs with other colleges within the university. These collaborations will join our International Fellows program, which works in partnership with the foreign languages department; and the QUEST track, which recruits students from the A. James Clark School of Engineering and the College of Computer Sciences.

Ultimately, we plan to create as many as 30 Fellows tracks, with 50 to 150 students each. New tracks under consideration include sports management, real estate management, biotechnology management, nonprofit management, consulting, leadership, and the arts. We believe our overlay model, which places the Fellows track system over our existing system of majors, holds great promise not only for the Smith School, but for other business schools searching for a way to maximize the opportunities within their BBA programs while still working within their own budgets and programs.

Our graduate students have long benefited from specialized educational experiences tailor-made to their career aspirations. With the enthusiastic support of our faculty and external community, we hope to give our undergraduate students the same attention, opportunities, and outlook on their business education and careers. After all, when our BBA students graduate, we want them to have more than a major and a diploma. We want them to view their time in our undergraduate program as uniquely memorable, meaningful, and essential to their success.

The Undergraduate Portfolio

LeBow College’s My LIFEfolio integrates coursework across the curriculum and offers a repository of knowledge for students to access and augment throughout their undergraduate careers.
by Frank Linnehan

About two years ago, George Tsetsekos, the dean of Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business, asked the business faculty to develop a plan to revise our undergraduate curriculum. As we delved into the process, we realized that the problem was not with our undergraduate business courses, but with the process of undergraduate education itself.

At one meeting, one of our faculty members pinpointed the true difficulty: “Most of us, but undergraduate students in particular, have a very short half-life of knowledge,” he said. “After students take a course’s final exam, they forget what they’ve learned. Then, they go into a course that builds on that previous knowledge and tell the professor, ‘We’ve never seen this material before.’”

We shouldn’t be surprised that students often don’t link one course to the next. Textbooks are expensive—95 percent of our undergraduate students sell their books as soon as they’ve finished the courses that require them. They do not maintain a cache of reference materials to create continuity throughout their undergraduate education. In addition, many undergraduate business students take half their courses outside the business school, making it doubly difficult to achieve integration across the curriculum.

To solve this problem, we decided to create My LIFEfolio, an online undergraduate portfolio that our students will maintain and build from freshman through senior years—and even long after graduation. We noted that other schools were using portfolios, but many used them sporadically or only for purposes of learning assessment. For our purposes, we envisioned a comprehensive online repository of information and knowledge that students could use to retain and refine their skills throughout the learning process.

Education is a very competitive market, and every student we lose—for financial, personal, or other reasons—is a loss for our school and our faculty.

Four Essential Areas

My LIFEfolio launched in the 2006–2007 academic year and is currently being used by all 500 of our freshmen. The electronic portfolio is divided into four essential skill sets that we believe our students will need to make the most of their education and their jobs after graduation:

Writing. In planning the content of My LIFEfolio, we conducted focus groups with employers, who told us that new hires often have difficulty in communication and writing skills. The writing component of the portfolio allows students to store their papers, track their progress, and address their weaknesses.

Quantitative Reasoning. Incoming freshmen may come to us with excellent SAT scores and take all the required math courses. But by the time they come to the business school in their junior years and enroll in economics, statistics, and finance courses, many have forgotten their math skills. By using My LIFEfolio, students can now retain and refer back to course notes, coursework, and relevant materials from their undergraduate math courses.

Career. About 70 percent of undergraduate business students at LeBow College take part in our co-op program, which allows them to combine their academic study with three six-month periods of full-time, paid, professional employment. The career area of My LIFEfolio allows them to create interactive resumes that link to projects they’ve completed in school, store performance appraisals from their co-op employment, and create a career plan.

Business Concentration. During their junior and senior years at LeBow, students often choose a major concentration in business. This area of their portfolio allows them to create continuity between their basic foundation courses and their advanced, specialized courses. To support this function of My LIFEfolio, we’ve asked each of our departments to upload relevant materials into the program, including basic materials and case studies that span two or three years of study.

Creating these four areas of My LIFEfolio has required strong faculty support, not just in the business school but across the Drexel campus. The English department, for example, has created a course called “Business and Literature,” which will be a capstone course in our students’ writing portfolios. Students will have the option to upload their work into the portfolio to create a record of writing skills for themselves and future employers. The math department will also be creating portfolio assignments, which will live in My LIFEfolio for future use.

Retention and Reflection

We had originally planned to support the new portfolio program with a $150,000 grant for curriculum reform, but when we failed to get the grant, we looked at other options. Fortunately, Drexel University already had licensed an electronic portfolio product from ePortaro, a company based in Sterling, Virginia. Some student organizations had taken advantage of the software, but the program was not being used in a systematic fashion and its basic templates did not really suit the purpose we had in mind.

However, we were able to work with ePortaro to design electronic portfolios that had the look and function that we required and that were compatible with our course management software, WebCT. As students upload their assignments into WebCT, they also will be able to transfer their work into their portfolios automatically.

If an undergraduate portfolio system were used only as a repository for assignments and homework, it would be nothing more than an electronic file. Our faculty wanted to make sure that My LIFEfolio would become a living document for students, which would allow them not only to save information but also to build a base of knowledge and continuous improvement.

Consequently, we are developing ways for students to reflect on their portfolios and undergraduate education. For example, we are building a one-credit career course, which will be taken the first term of senior year and will require students to give a 20- to 25-minute presentation of their career portfolio to faculty. In their presentations, students will reflect on what they have learned, what they have accomplished, what their plans are for their careers, and what their expectations are for the future.

We have many students who reach their senior years still undecided about what path to take after graduation. We hope that if we build into the portfolio this type of reflection and capstone experience, students will be better able to identify their passions and talents. They’ll be able to see what they like to do and put that into perspective as they set their career objectives.

A More Meaningful BBA

We are still working through three primary challenges with the My LIFEfolio process. For instance, we currently lack the connectivity that we would like between the portfolio and our career development software. We are working with ePortaro and our career services to make that connectivity possible.

Second, we must create a system where students are actively using My LIFEfolio on a continual basis. We realize that the portfolio system will not work if we make it voluntary. Much of its use must be course-embedded, whether students are taking our business courses or history, math, and political science courses through the university. We are working with faculty throughout the university to make the portfolio an active part of our students’ educational lives.

And third, we must use the portfolio to keep our students connected to the school while they’re working on their co-op experiences. Too often, we’ve heard our students say that the best thing about being an undergraduate business student at Drexel was our co-op program. That response concerns us—our students were saying that their best learning experiences at Drexel took place when they weren’t even on our campus! So, we also want to build elements into the portfolio that will connect students to campus while they’re out on co-op, such as online courses they can take while they’re working.

These efforts, of course, are to enhance both our undergraduate curriculum and our students’ satisfaction with their education. Like other business schools, we want to retain each of our students through graduation. Education is a very competitive market, and every student we lose—for financial, personal, or other reasons—is a loss for our school and our faculty. By making our students’ experiences more satisfying and meaningful, we better ensure that they will view Drexel as an integral part of their education as students and as alumni.

Now that My LIFEfolio is in its first year, our faculty are seeing more possibilities for it, not only for promoting course integration and learning assessment, but also for instilling in students a different attitude toward learning. We want students to understand that education is not a one-off, course-by-course experience, but a continual, lifelong process.

In the end, we want to make our students’ experiences as meaningful as possible. My LIFEfolio is a tool for learning and a historical record that students can use not just as business undergraduates, but as successful business professionals.

Howard Frank is the dean of the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland in College Park.

Frank Linnehan is the associate dean of undergraduate studies at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.