The Many Benefits of Consulting Projects

When students act as business consultants, there’s value for the sponsors, the students, the school, and the wider region.

The Many Benefits of Consulting Projects

THE COLLEGE OF BUSINESS Administration (CoBA) at California State University San Marcos (CSUSM) has been running an undergraduate consulting project called Senior Experience for the past 25 years. Students spend two weeks in class learning how to conduct research and interact with clients; ten weeks in the field working on their projects in five- and six-person teams; and one week creating presentations, which they deliver to an audience that includes their sponsors.

Approximately 500 students go through the Senior Experience program each year, delivering about 100 projects to for-profits and nonprofits that range in size from one-person startups to Fortune 100 companies. We believe the program offers enormous value—to the community, the school, and the students.

SERVING THE COMMUNITY

The Senior Experience offers three benefits to the local business region:

Shared knowledge. During finals week, students present the results of their research in a trade show format to business leaders from the region; each team staffs a booth devoted to its project. Ninety minutes before the trade show opens, the school hosts a business networking reception where we provide food, drinks, and a nonacademic speaker with business insights.

These events always create a great deal of exposure for the sponsors, the students, and the school. They also generate inquiries from new companies interested in the Senior Experience program. Last semester, about 300 people attended the trade show and reception, representing more than 200 for-profit and nonprofit organizations.

New information. The Senior Experience has created broad new knowledge or the entire community through partnerships. For example, for the past three years, Senior Experience teams have conducted surveys for the San Diego Business Journal, in which they asked regional business owners how confident they felt about revenue, profits, hiring, and related jobs for the upcoming quarter. Additional surveys explored industry-specific economic indicators.

This year, the journal used the three years of data to publish two articles—one about general business confidence and one about San Diego’s craft beer industry. From now on, the paper will publish these economic indicators twice a year, as well as additional articles when we gather more data.

Community outreach. We charge each sponsor a nominal flat fee to cover our costs. About half of our sponsors return, and alumni often seek to sponsor projects of their own. Recently, when some longtime sponsors ran out of new challenges for our teams, they offered to help us create a fund to allow local nonprofits to submit their own challenges at no cost. Another benefactor now has endowed the program in such a way that we can offer a certain number of projects each semester to nonprofits.

GROWING THE PROGRAM

It is my full-time job to work with potential sponsors to promote the Senior Experience and discuss what projects would be suitable for students to undertake. I visit nearby chambers of commerce to find new sponsors, and the school buys advertising in the local business journal. We also send out “call for projects” emails twice a year. In addition, when companies ask our university internship office for students to do work that seems suited for a Senior Experience project, the office refers those requests to me.

Until recently, we accepted only projects that could be undertaken by students from the College of Business Administration, but two years ago, we began offering projects in conjunction with other colleges on campus. So far, we have completed about three dozen collaborative projects with the colleges of arts, communications, human development, and computer science. Typically, these teams include three business students—each from different business disciplines—and two from the other school. Nonbusiness students complete the experience as an independent study project through their own colleges.

TEACHING THE STUDENTS

We believe that all participating students gain a great deal from the Senior Experience. For instance, when I survey students at the end of each semester, they commonly tell me that they’ve learned how to deal with personalities, meet schedules, interact with team members, and manage a workload for an extended period of time.

But I know that the Senior Experience prepares them in ways they might not recognize until they’ve been out in the workplace for a few years. They master soft skills, learn how to identify and solve problems, think critically, work diplomatically with clients, and navigate diverse teams. They also hone their leadership skills as they handle a range of tasks—from writing team contracts that spell out expectations to firing teammates who are underperforming.

When I reflect on all the benefits that students, the school, and the wider community gain from CSUSM’s Senior Experience, I only have one question: Shouldn’t every college of business create a similar program?

Ed Ashley is director of business community relations and adjunct professor in management at the College of Business Administration at the California State University in San Marcos.

See below for a discussion of the factors that can make the team experience a good one for participating students.