The rise of B-school summer camp for college students

June 27, 2012, 6:06 PM UTC

(Poets&Quants) — For most college students, summer is a time for catching up with friends back home and working on your tan. But for a growing number of ambitious undergraduates, it’s also a time for the equivalent of business school boot camp.

These summer experiences, which typically range from three to eight weeks in length, are deep dives into business fundamentals and are especially helpful to liberal arts graduates with little class work or training in business. The idea is to give graduates a leg up in landing an internship and, eventually, a job after graduation. And they’re run by prestigious schools like Stanford, Dartmouth, the University of Chicago, and UC-Berkeley’s Haas School.

Summer business programs for non-business majors are designed for undergrads like Sam Ellis who don’t want to limit their curricular choices but feel the need to differentiate themselves in a tight job market. A double major in sport science and economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), Ellis took the Kenan-Flagler Business School’s Business Essentials program in 2010, prior to his senior year. “I figured that having a fundamental understanding of business practices would be advantageous to me no matter what career path I ultimately chose.”

Most companies recognize the importance of bringing in people with varied academic backgrounds but they also see the value of having a business background layered on top of that, says Brenda Stover, director of Professional Development and Business Institutes at the Villanova School of Business.

Although 25.5% of the class of 2012 that applied for a job already has secured one, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ (NACE) 2012 Student Survey, that’s roughly half the percentage of accounting, engineering, computer science, economics, and business administration majors, who had received at least one offer.

Who are these programs for, exactly?

Most summer programs cater mainly to a university‘s own students, while some, like the Business Bridge program at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, cast a much wider net. Up to 40% of Bridge students may come from Dartmouth, with the rest representing 50 other colleges on average, from across the country. 

The Business Bridge program, now in its 16th year, holds two four-week sessions back to back that fulfill a particular need since Dartmouth doesn’t offer undergrad majors in business or any other professional tracks. “The problem is that the job market in the last 25 years has become more focused on students who have gotten business training and internships,” concedes Paul Doscher, marketing director for the program.

Despite the proliferation of summer programs in recent years, Dartmouth sees Stanford as its only competition – along with the job market itself, says Doscher. “In more prosperous days, students would not hesitate to turn down some jobs and come to Bridge because they had faith they would benefit and get better jobs eventually. The drop-off in jobs has made students more cautious.”

Kenan-Flagler launched its Business Essentials program in 2009 and has so far enrolled nearly 600 students. Almost all of them are from UNC and a majority of them do the program between their junior and senior years. But a sizable number of participants are graduates who already have landed jobs and just want the business acumen, say Kip Kelly, Kenan-Flagler’s director of marketing and business development. Business Essentials is also one of the first online-only programs, designed to let students do the coursework at their own pace.

A key hurdle for the online-only format was getting buy-in from Kenan-Flagler faculty for the idea, says Kelly. While initially skeptical, the faculty members now appreciate the chance to scale up their curricula for a much broader audience than business majors, says Kelly. The program makes online tutors available around the clock to help students.

Many summer programs include a career development component, but the Bridge program takes things up a notch, with support from teaching assistants from the MBA program and a Career Day where students can meet up to 35 corporate recruiters, 90% of whom are Bridge alumni, says Doscher. “They come from the same feeder schools, so students feel somewhat relieved that these aren’t straight, stuffy recruiters,” he says.

For Mimi McCauley, who completed Bridge in 2006 before her senior year at Yale, the biggest benefit was being walked through the nuts and bolts of preparing a resume and cover letter and how to act in various interview scenarios. As an economics major, she had not learned how to work with Excel spreadsheets or PowerPoint presentations until doing the Bridge program. She received a full-time job offer from an investment firm while in the program but ended up turning it down.

While the course materials were too extensive for her to fully absorb during the month-long program, McCauley found herself referring back to them a year later after getting her first job as a healthcare investment analyst at Great Point Partners. She believes Great Point probably highly valued the program since, as a smaller firm, it can’t invest in a thorough training program for new hires.

Not exactly a bargain

These programs are not cheap. The more comprehensive ones run around $10,000, sometimes excluding room and board, while the Kenan-Flagler online program costs $3,200. Kenan-Flagler offers 10 to 20 full or partial scholarships each year to qualifying students, who serve as ambassadors for the program. Villanova offered six full scholarships this year. Dartmouth offers scholarships covering 20% to 50% of tuition to up to 30% of the students in the Bridge program.

Sam Ellis’ career services counselor steered him toward the Business Essentials program in his junior year, touting the additional career options that the certificate would provide and the reach of Kenan-Flagler’s professional network. The online program’s flexibility is what he liked best since it let him balance the coursework with up to 35 hours a week of training to play Varsity football that fall, he said in an email. The tradeoff was having to do the coursework by himself with limited team assignments. He also missed the classroom Q&A, but said access to tutors made up for that.

Ellis says that one of the most important things he picked up at Kenan-Flagler was a sense of the rhythm and style of business communication. As a strategy consultant at IBM (IBM) Global Business Services, “its importance is magnified in a situation where a particular role is client facing on an everyday basis,” he says.

The Villanova program was still fresh in John Dunham’s mind when he sat down with traders at Morgan Stanley’s (MS) headquarters in November 2009. He was preparing for a formal interview for an internship at the financial giant that a former high school headmaster had helped to arrange.

“I was able to talk intelligently about what was going on in the markets and was able to pick up on what they were following,” he says. “It allowed me to make that first good impression, which I think is key, especially in this tough job market.”

Dunham landed the internship for the following summer and one year later, after graduating in May 2011, started his first job as a fixed income sales analyst at Morgan Stanley.

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