Rural Schools Can Overcome the 'Tyranny of Distance'

Rural locations present business schools with unique challenges, but their distance from urban centers also can be a large source of their appeal.

THE CHALLENGE:

Located in the idyllic Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, Ithaca is a quintessential college town with a population of just over 30,000 people. More than an hour’s drive from Syracuse and nearly five hours from New York City, it’s also home to our institution, Ithaca College, as well as our Ivy League neighbor, Cornell University. Initially founded as a music conservatory in 1892, Ithaca College (IC) is best known for its School of Music and the Roy H. Park School of Communication. In fact, many of our most recognizable alumni are in the entertainment and media industries.

Its roots as a music conservatory inspired IC’s motto: “Theory, Practice, Perform.” This framework informs everything we do at the School of Business, which serves approximately 800 students. We offer an undergraduate curriculum that is grounded in the liberal arts.

At IC’s School of Business, we sometimes find it difficult to attract prospective business students to a rural campus best known for producing actors, filmmakers, musicians, and journalists. We find it equally challenging to place graduates when our campus is far removed from cities where they tend to seek employment. Finally, as a regional institution that recruits students primarily from the northeastern United States, we face fierce competition from nearby business schools.

For these reasons, we must answer a crucial question: How can business schools like ours, located off the beaten path, stay competitive? For us, the answer has been to create programs that continuously bring alumni and businesses to our campus and take students to urban centers. In this way, we ensure that our graduates are not only satisfied with their educational experience, but also able to find desirable positions or start businesses post-graduation.

THE APPROACH:

One way that we have maximized our engagement with alumni is through the creation of two advisory groups. Our Business Advisory Council (BAC), established in 2009, comprises alumni and business professionals who support career development, curriculum development, and recruitment. Our Investment Advisory Board (IAB), established around the same time, focuses on the finance curriculum, including our student-managed portfolio and trading room. Its members drove the creation of the Investment Track in our finance concentration. The BAC and IAB both meet at least once per semester, with one meeting held in New York City.

In the early years of the BAC, when its members were concerned that our students were lacking in career and professional development opportunities, they helped push initiatives such as our Professions Program (described in the next section), as well as the creation of a staff position within the School of Business for a director of external relations. Providing dedicated career support for business students, this individual is our liaison to the college’s Office of Career Services, as well as its offices of institutional advancement and alumni and family relations.

Similarly, in 2014, in response to IAB’s push for a greater focus on career development in the finance industry, we hired a mid-career alumnus of our finance program to fill a non-tenure-track faculty position. The salaries of both new staff members were partially funded by BAC and IAB members.

THE PROFESSIONS PROGRAM

Our Professions Program is a cornerstone of our efforts to bring alumni to campus and send students to urban centers. The four-year co-curricular program is required of all business students and covers all career and professional development in the business school.

As part of the program, students must attend four workshops: Making Success a Habit, All-Star Interviewing, Securing Stellar Internships, and Life After IC. In addition, students must conduct informational interviews, complete 30-hour job shadowing experiences, and attend at least eight professional development events throughout the year such as panel discussions and guest lectures. Our director of external relations arranges to bring alumni to present in classes, serve on panel discussions, deliver keynote presentations, and work with student organizations.

The program also features three larger-scale activities:

Professions Week. This annual event features “Dress for Success” presentations, an etiquette dinner, keynote speeches, résumé reviews, and diversity and inclusion panels. During our first Professions Week in the fall of 2015, we recognized alum Stew Leonard, CEO of the Stew Leonard’s supermarket chain in Connecticut and New York, for his selection as one of the AACSB Top 100 Influential Leaders. In 2016, alum and Disney CEO Bob Iger discussed the importance of creativity in business.

Site visits. With the support of alumni donations, we send student groups to visit alumni on their home turf. We’ve sent them to Boston, Massachusetts, to visit an alumni partner at Deloitte; to Albany, New York, for the Women@Work Summit; to Houston, Texas, to work at Super Bowl LI; and even to Omaha, Nebraska, to attend the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting.

We also organize two “Meet the Firms” trips per year, timed to coincide with industry recruiting cycles. In the fall, accounting and finance students visit alumni and recruiters at financial services organizations, including Big Four accounting firms. In the spring, marketing, management, and international business students visit advertising agencies, market research firms, and business media companies. In either fall or spring, sports management students can visit alumni at places such as Madison Square Garden, the Barclays Center, and Yankee Stadium. Each trip includes a networking event where students and alumni mingle in a relaxed environment.

Young alumni mentors. After mentoring many students over the years, a member of our BAC suggested that his mentees could pay it forward by helping students who came after them. At first, he helped establish an informal system of connections between students and young alums. In 2016, we created a more formal program called the Young Alumni Mentoring Network, an optional program for freshmen business students. Currently, more than 50 members of the class of 2017 are mentoring freshmen with similar interests.

While our young alumni might not have significant work experience or the ability to offer seasoned career advice, they can offer invaluable guidance about extracurricular activities, choice of majors, study abroad, internships, and early career management. Freshmen feel connected to near-peer alumni, and young alumni can create meaningful professional connections with the school after they graduate.

The director of external relations is partnering with our Office of Alumni Relations to transition these mentor relationships onto a collegewide web-based platform, “IC MentorConnect.” However, our system of matching the right alumni with the right freshmen requires more hands-on involvement than the platform currently supports.

Alumni engagement. One of our Syracuse-based BAC members wanted a way for IC alumni in business to network, help current students, and have fun. In 2010, the first Business Link chapter was formed. It is an active group, holding at least one meeting over winter break, usually hosted by an alum at his or her place of business; and one event during the summer break, usually hosted at a sporting event. Other alumni have organized inaugural Business Link events in Buffalo, Boston, and Long Island.

Current students with chapters in their hometowns are encouraged to attend Business Link events while home on breaks, so they can connect with alumni and build their local networks. Our faculty and staff inform students of upcoming chapter activities and often attend events. Otherwise, these interactions happen with little oversight from the School of Business.

Internships. Finally, we take advantage of IC’s three satellite campuses in New York City, Los Angeles, and London, where students can spend a semester or more in study-away programs. While students typically take one or two academic courses during their time off campus, the primary feature of ICNYC and IC in LA is an internship worth a minimum of six credits. Students often find that these internships are the most meaningful experiences of their programs, with many leading to job offers post-graduation.

ENCOURAGING LOCAL ENTREPRENEURSHIP

Luckily for rural schools, not every student dreams of working at a bigname firm in a big-name city. Some want to work with nonprofits or launch businesses of their own. With that in mind, Ithaca College has partnered with Cornell and our local community college to create Rev: Ithaca Startup Works, an incubator and workspace that provides mentorship and startup resources for local businesses and students.

To support local entrepreneurship, the School of Business runs two annual events: Business Idea Demo Day in the fall and Business Plan Pitch Night in the spring. Judges for these competitions are alumni who are successful entrepreneurs, members of the BAC or IAB, or local business owners. Student teams present their business models and request the capital they need to grow their businesses, whether they want to build prototypes, attend trade shows, or bring products to market. Winning teams receive funds, donated by our alumni, to reimburse their business expenses.

This system ensures that the funds are spent to grow their enterprises. Over the last five years, we have distributed more than US$250,000 that has been used to launch several successful student businesses.

INTRODUCING IC

Like many rural schools, we find it challenging to get prospective and admitted students to come to campus and hear our story—especially students without the means to travel here. To help on this front, over spring break, alumni and our BAC/IAB members host a series of off-campus receptions for admitted students in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York City. This timing makes it possible for current IC students home on break to attend the events, as well as for IC faculty and staff to travel to the host cities. These receptions introduce prospective students and their families to what we have to offer, even if they are unable to visit our campus in person.

To attract students interested in investing, members of the IAB have funded our High School Investment Competition, where student teams from high schools around the region use the StockTrak portfolio simulation to compete for US$10,000 in prize money. Winning teams and their teachers are invited to campus to attend an award ceremony, as well as seminars with alumni and current finance students. The competition offers prospective students a Wall Street experience without going to Wall Street.

Finally, to offer prospective and admitted students the best on-campus experience, we schedule our spring BAC meeting to coincide with Ithaca Today, our largest on-campus event for admitted students. Board members are encouraged to stay through the weekend and interact with students and their families.

COMMITTING THE FUNDS

Any concerted effort to expand a business school’s reach requires funding. That’s why the charters for the BAC and IAB require their members to financially support the School of Business and Investment Track, respectively. We don’t specify a minimum level of support. It’s more important to us that we have their 100 percent participation as donors.

We also receive financial support from IC’s nonsalary operating fund, the School of Business dean’s discretionary fund, the college’s nonscholarship “IC Annual Fund for Business,” the “IC Annual Parents’ Fund for Business,” and other sources such as leadership gifts from alumni. Some donors restrict their donations to support specific initiatives such as the Professions Program, Investment Track, and student-managed portfolio—for instance, the Investment Track is supported by an alumnus who attributes his success as a hedge fund manager to opportunities he had as a student.

Even though our outreach and student development initiatives are significantly underwritten by donor gifts, we require students to pay a nominal fee so they have some “skin in the game.” Students pay $150 to participate in three-day “Meet the Firms” trips to New York City, for which they receive transportation, lodging, and several meals.

We also require student groups that participate in our professional activities to take pictures at events and write thank-you letters to donors. We then post their photos and messages on our website’s “Donor Thank You” page and include them in our annual donor newsletter. We find that when donors see that their gifts have enhanced the student experience, they are more strongly motivated than they are by seeing their funds support the school’s operational needs.

KNOWING WHO WE ARE

While our location may present disadvantages, it also can be a great asset. Some students prefer the beauty, safety, and sense of community that comes with a rural, residential campus. That sense of community cultivates strong bonds among students and faculty and a loyal alumni base.

Through creative, intentional programming, rural schools can increase interactions among students and alumni, drive student recruitment, and raise program visibility. We also can send a powerful message that schools located off the beaten path might be perfectly situated after all.

Sean Reid is dean, Rasoul Rezvanian is associate dean, Jason Muenzen is director of the investment program, and Dawn Kline is assistant dean at Ithaca College’s School of Business in New York.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's September/October issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to bized.editors@aacsb.edu.