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The Most Popular Major

16 Apr

For the last three decades, a little over 20% of all American college students have opted to major in business, making it the most popular undergraduate field. Two weeks ago, Melissa Korn of the Wall Street Journal wrote an article that questioned the value of an undergraduate business degree. Last year the New York Times published an article by David Glenn that raised concerns about the rigor of business school curriculums. Both articles describe the problems and changes that are afoot in undergraduate business education. More undergraduate business schools are rethinking their curriculum to require students to take liberal arts courses that sharpen critical thinking, problem solving, and writing skills.

This development seems to be a response to recruiters, who are looking for employees who, because of exposure to various academic disciplines, can think creatively and see the big picture. In fact, many companies look for non-business majors to diversify their workforce. It’s not unusual to see economics majors land jobs on Wall Street alongside finance majors.

When you think about it, a graduate business degree (M.B.A) takes two years to complete so it would make sense that liberal arts study can be incorporated into the curriculum. The Glenn article notes that the lack of rigor in an undergraduate business education is not applicable to institutions like the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania or those at the top of the business school pecking order.

This is not at all to say that an undergraduate business degree has little value. For high school students considering business school for undergraduate study, it’s a good idea to evaluate whether the curriculum is flexible enough to allow them to take other courses that interest them, courses that are not related to business. Not only will taking humanities, social science or science courses be a change from business classes, it will also expand one’s intellectual horizons. In the end, that is what a good education should achieve.

Alma Mater: Not Penn State

14 Nov

Ok, the title of this post is a cheap shot.  I admit it.  When I attended the University of Pennsylvania in the 1980’s, there was a popular T-shirt on campus that read: “Not Penn State.”  Apparently people often got my alma mater confused with Penn State, much to our annoyance.  Back then many Penn students like myself had an inferiority complex, having been shut out of the Ivy League Big Three (Harvard, Princeton, Yale).  So for people to think that we attended Penn State felt like they were pouring salt on wound.

Those days are long gone.  In fact, I probably can’t get admitted today.  As for that “Not Penn State” T-shirt, I didn’t see any on my recent visit to campus.  Judging from the early decision statistics, many students now make Penn their first choice and half the entering class is filled through early decision.  It’s no wonder our high school guidance department advises students to apply early if they want to go to Penn.  In 2011, the overall admission rate was 12% but 26% of early applicants were admitted.  (It will be interesting to see whether Harvard and Princeton’s re-institution of early action will siphon off candidates from Penn’s early decision pool).

Penn also likes to admit children and grandchildren of alumni.  Whether you believe legacy preference is fair or not, Penn wants to attract legacy students.  It created the Alumni Council on Admissions to help alumni families determine whether Penn is the right college, and to advise legacy applicants how best to present themselves.  In early decision, 38% to 42% of legacy applicants are admitted.  But the legacy advantage only seems to matter in early decision and is less of a factor in regular decision.  Penn is a popular choice at our high school and each year over two-dozen seniors apply.  Penn usually accepts about half a dozen students, almost all through early decision.

When we visited the campus, it was on a beautiful early spring day.  The lovely weather brought the students outside in full force and they thronged Locust Walk, the main pedestrian thoroughfare through Penn’s campus.  Tables were set up along the Walk and students were loudly hawking tickets to dances, shows, and other campus happenings.  The atmosphere felt festive.  Maybe it was the bright sunshine but the buildings seemed spiffier than I remembered.  The Wharton undergraduate business school is housed in a new building, Huntsman Hall, named after its benefactor, Jon M. Huntsman, father of the Republican presidential candidate and former ambassador to China, Jon M. Huntsman, Jr.  The building inside is gorgeous, with polished wood interiors and state-of-the-art teaching equipment.  Thanks to its many successful alumni, the Wharton School has always received out-sized alumni donations.

Penn has four undergraduate colleges – liberal arts, business, engineering and nursing – and is the second largest Ivy League university.  Total enrollment numbers around 9,700 undergraduates.  An interdisciplinary approach to academics is highly encouraged, reflecting founder Benjamin Franklin’s belief in an education that is strong in the professions and the liberal arts.  So regardless of which college students are enrolled in, they may take classes in any of the four schools.  There are more opportunities than in my day to pursue dual degrees such as international studies and business, management and technology, nursing and health care management, life sciences and management, computers and cognitive science.  Some unusual majors that I remember from thirty years ago, like history and sociology of science or biological basis of behavior, are still being offered.

As a heavily pre-professional university, many of my classmates went on to pursue graduate degrees in business, law, and medicine.  I suspect that this has not changed.  It is a university that has only gotten better with time.

Guest Blogger: Gigi Collins

25 Apr

If it’s April showers, it must be spring break when hordes of prospective students and their parents descend on universities and colleges on the obligatory “college tour.”  For those of you who have not done this yet, you might enjoy reading about my friend Gigi Collins‘ experience of taking her daughter on her first college trip.

Getting Energized

I have really enjoyed reading this blog about parenting a college bound teen and I have been thinking “Whew! I have a sophomore so I don’t have to freak out just yet.”  Until now.

This spring, as a sophomore, my daughter had to sign up for her junior year classes.  Oh, the stress and tears!  She was told “you must take x number of AP classes to even think about applying to the good schools.”  Next came the alphabet soup of standardized tests: PSAT/NMSQT, SAT, ACT, SAT II, AP.  Last came the advice on writing a killer application essay, to include unique community service credits, extraordinary extracurriculars, and oh, don’t forget, a summer job or two.  I’m only the parent and I could feel a migraine coming on.  But I could see that my daughter was anxious too.  She met with her advisor three times to hammer out her two-year AP class plan and she has already lined up her summer job.

So what did I do?  I decided that we’d go visit some colleges on her spring break.  Yes, you are probably thinking I need my head examined.  I thought so too…until we went on the visits.

I used the excuse of visiting a friend in the Philadelphia suburbs and we picked two colleges “on the way” to “stop by and have a look see.”  Of course, my daughter gave me her best teenage glare and stated that I was ruining her spring break.  She wanted to relax and not think about colleges.

Our first stop was the University of Pennsylvania.  We wanted to see an Ivy League school and a city campus.  We were expecting buildings and streets but were pleasantly surprised to find that Penn has a real campus, with enclosed quads and pedestrian-only walkways.  My daughter was impressed with the beautiful architecture and the collegiate feel.  Our tour guide was a junior at the business school and he was approachable and smart.  We attended the information session where an admissions officer gave an awesome presentation about Penn history, curriculum, as well as the admissions process.  She actually had a calming influence on my daughter as she spoke frankly about what Penn was looking for – top grades, essays that show your personality, and future leadership ability.  She said that the SAT/ACT scores were not as important in the big picture so not to stress over the test or re-take them unnecessarily.

I could see my daughter visibly relax.  She leaned over and whispered to me, “I think college is going to be exciting.”  Whoa, did I hear that right?  Maybe we’ll get through the college search still talking to each other.  I was feeling like I did something right as a parent of a teenager.  Sweet.

At Penn, my daughter saw that a big university with all its amenities like grants for special studies or international opportunities could still have a small intimate college feel.  Yes, she did buy a Penn t-shirt.

Next stop was Villanova University, private Catholic university in the Philadelphia suburbs.  We had high expectations since we thought a mid-sized college with a “real campus” would be a better fit.  My daughter first noticed that the students seemed younger and more casual than at Penn.  An excitable admissions officer ran the information session and he tried to lighten the mood with banter but we felt that he was trying too hard to sell us on Villanova.  Our enthusiastic tour guide was a freshman from Hawaii and he showed us around the impressive campus.  My daughter really liked the engineering building with the exposed beams and ductwork.  She got to see a lecture hall and the labs in the science building.  Most of the students at Villanova come from the Tri-State and New England area, making the college more of a regional school.

Before our college trip, my daughter seemed stressed and unenthusiastic about looking at colleges.  After our trip, she had a big smile on her face and she is now very motivated to look for the best college fit for her.  Ah, relief…until we start filling out the applications!

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