Eliminating Barriers to Business Education

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Wednesday, December 22, 2021
By Kabrina Chang, Erik Devos
Photo by iStock/Paul Bradbury
By providing the right guidance and support, business schools can help first-generation and underrepresented students achieve greater career success.

As educators, we spend a great deal of time discussing how to promote diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging (DEIB) in our campus communities. We set up task forces and implement policies meant to make our programs more accessible to students from underrepresented or nontraditional backgrounds. But despite those efforts, many schools still fall short in meeting their benchmarks for diversity. Why?

One reason for this struggle is that, at many schools, DEIB policies and desired outcomes are often misaligned. While many schools focus on recruiting and enrolling diverse student cohorts, how many implement initiatives that reach prospective students early in their decision-making processes? How many provide systems of support at every stage of students’ college careers?

Without such support, nontraditional students might struggle academically or feel as if they do not belong on campus, resulting in lower rates of retention and completion. Prospective students from underrepresented backgrounds might never consider studying business in the first place.

Our two business schools have established programs that serve first-generation students and students from underrepresented backgrounds at each stage of their educational careers. At the Questrom School of Business at Boston University, the Ascend Fellowship program has grown into a comprehensive recruitment and retainment tool. And at the College of Business Administration at the University of Texas in El Paso (UTEP COBA), the Prudential Risk Management Academy is offered as part of the school’s risk management degree program. The academy reaches prospective students as early as the eighth grade to educate them about careers in actuarial science; it then continues to support students who pursue this course of study at the university.

Each initiative encompasses a comprehensive set of strategies designed to identify prospective students and eliminate the barriers to academic success they might face. As a result, our schools have been able to enroll a greater number of first-generation and underrepresented students, as well as improve the retention and completion rates of these students. Over time, these initiatives have become self-sustaining and have helped our schools achieve many of our DEIB goals.

Ascend—A Multifaceted Approach

The launch of the Ascend Fellowship at Questrom coincided with the hiring of its first director of diversity, equity, and inclusion in 2016. The program now is further supported by Questrom’s Center for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, which opened in 2019. The center serves as a hub to organize the school’s student-focused DEI efforts, including running DEI programming and providing support to all students and identity-based clubs.

Each year, the director of the Center for DE&I reaches out to applicants and current Questrom students who are either first-generation or who come from historically underrepresented backgrounds, encouraging them to apply to the Ascend program. Once selected as Ascend Fellows, students have access to ongoing programming and events designed specifically for each year of their undergraduate careers. They also receive the guidance of student mentors who are chosen through an application process and matched to mentees according to their industries and interests.

How many schools implement initiatives that reach prospective students early in their decision-making processes? How many provide systems of support at every stage of students’ college careers?

First-year fellows come to campus to participate in Ascend Week, offered each summer just before classes begin. During this week, they get to know one other; build a sense of community; and learn introductory business concepts, leadership skills, and team-building skills. During the year, fellows also have the option of living together on a dedicated dorm floor.

The program and its participants are supported by Ascend Ambassadors. These are current fellows who support incoming fellow cohorts and attend events, such as Multicultural Weekend and first-year orientation, where they educate prospective applicants about the program.

As part of the fellowship, students take several required seminars. The Ascend Seminar, for example, helps students understand different career opportunities and expand upon their financial education via virtual visits to companies such as PwC, Wayfair, and Sunwealth. Another course, Explore Your Career, enrolls primarily first-year fellows. Here, students explore career options in light of their personal values, interests, skills, and identities; in addition, they learn to apply basic career search tools and techniques.

In 2019, the school established Ascend NYC, which takes up to 50 students to New York City for three days just before the spring semester begins. During past trips, students have visited New York-based companies such as American Express, Macy’s, and The New York Times Company; engaged with young alumni; and participated in sight-seeing excursions. For this year’s program, students participated in a three-hour virtual visit with American Express executives.

Since its inception, the Ascend Fellowship program has grown steadily, from 27 fellows in 2016–17 to 114 fellows in 2020–21. That most recent cohort included 30 first-years, four transfer students, seven continuing students, and 73 upper-level students.

Risk Management Academy—Early Outreach

UTEP COBA created the academy simultaneously with a new risk management degree program that prepares students for careers in finance and actuarial science. The academy supports full-time UTEP students who have chosen risk management as their majors, maintain a 3.0 grade point average, and come from underrepresented backgrounds.

However, UTEP COBA works to spark students’ interest in risk management careers long before they arrive on campus. To reach prospective applicants as early as possible, the school conducts outreach to local high schools to educate high school students and their parents, guidance counselors, and math teachers about what risk management means and what career pathways it offers. A dedicated staff member who oversees the academy has established critical relationships with local high school districts, as well as with El Paso Community College, to identify prospective candidates.

As part of its outreach, UTEP COBA sends representatives to local high school parent-teacher nights to hand out brochures and show videos on risk management. It even sends guest speakers to middle-school career events to inform eighth graders about actuarial science and the Risk Management Academy.

In addition, the school holds an annual boot camp where high school teachers can work with data sets to gain exposure to real-life actuarial work; participating teachers also receive access to the software that UTEP COBA uses to deliver its own curriculum. Now delivered primarily asynchronously and online, these boot camps prepare teachers to return to their classrooms to give high school students applied math experience as it relates to the insurance field. 

Once students are enrolled in the academy, the school invites parents to social events where they get to hear about the activities their children have been participating in throughout the academic year. Because Texas has such a large Spanish-speaking community, COBA also develops materials specifically for this audience. These include Spanish-language videos in which students currently enrolled in the academy explain what they are learning and what support they need their parents to provide. This is particularly important for first-generation students and their parents who come from non-English-speaking backgrounds and who have limited access to information about this field.

Last summer, the business school held its inaugural Diversity in Insurance Summer Camp, a three-day on-campus summer program where students can play statistical games, learn about national scholarships and internships, and network with actuarial professionals and representatives from national associations. Last year, 29 students, all from Latino backgrounds, attended.

Because the first year on campus is a crucial time for students to identify and articulate their strengths, the school asks every first-year student in the academy to complete personality tests. Faculty then help students use these results to map their strengths and interests onto appropriate career paths.

From that point forward, the Risk Management Academy continues to support students’ academic, personal, and professional development through corporate mentorship, tutoring support, and study abroad and volunteer opportunities. Students also have access to boot camps in programming languages such as Python and Excel, industry-led workshops, and executive guest lectures. Academy staff work with local businesses to design industry-engaged professional development for all student groups.

Evidence of Success

In refining these two programs, both of our schools have learned that it’s important to solicit input and financial support from industry partners. By collaborating with business, schools can ensure the relevancy and long-term sustainability of their DEIB programs, as well as validate that program in the eyes of students and other stakeholders. Luckily, companies in fields that lack diversity, such as those in risk management, most often see the ROI in investing in programs that will provide them with more diverse pools of talent.

We are in the early stages of tracking the outcomes for students in these programs, but we have gathered some data that show initial success. For example, many students who participate in the Risk Management Academy have passed actuarial exams prior to graduation. Moreover, coordinators have discovered that internships play an important role in student success—of those students who complete internships, 80 percent receive job offers before graduation.

To achieve their DEIB goals, schools must design pathways from recruitment to career placement that are mindfully managed, deliberately executed, and tailored to the needs of their communities.

Among students in the first cohort of Ascend Fellows, 100 percent graduated, and 96 percent were employed six months after graduation. By comparison, in 2016, the school’s four-year retention rate was 66 percent for students from underrepresented backgrounds and 76 percent for first-generation students.

More recent data show that, among Ascend Fellows who entered the program during the 2019–20 academic year, the one-year retention rate for students from underrepresented backgrounds was 94 percent, a rate identical to that of students from traditional backgrounds. The one-year retention rate for first-generation students has improved to 89 percent, although administrators would like to see that number continue to rise.

Providing Support, Building Community

Widening participation in business education is always a work in progress. Every year, we continue to learn as we reshape our policies and programs, broaden our reach, and bring ourselves closer to our DEIB objectives. But in developing these two programs, we have learned that DEIB initiatives must do two things to be effective. First, they must provide students with ongoing academic and professional development support. And, second, they must help students cultivate a sense of community—from the moment they arrive on campus, all students must be able to see themselves succeed and feel that they belong.

After all, we know that many students from underrepresented backgrounds have never seen friends or family members working in business, which means they are less likely to pursue business careers, or even view such careers as options. It is very gratifying to help them discover careers that they did not know existed and excel as they follow challenging educational pathways. When provided the right guidance and mentorship throughout high school and college, these students can build the knowledge and confidence to compete at the highest levels.

There is no cookie-cutter approach to DEIB. Every program is different; every student body is different. Schools must design pathways from recruitment to career placement that are mindfully managed, deliberately executed, and tailored to the needs of their communities. When schools design such comprehensive programs, they attract more diverse candidates to business careers and, in the process, generate a positive ROI for both business and society.

Nontraditional students of great talent are everywhere—unfortunately, their talent is too often overlooked. We must do more than just create opportunities for these students. We also must meet them where they are and support them during their learning journeys.

Kabrina Chang
Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and Clinical Professor of Markets, Public Policy, and Law, Questrom School of Business, Boston University
Erik Devos
Associate Dean for Faculty, Research, and Graduate Programs, Ellis and Susan Mayfield Professor of Business Administration and Professor of Finance, College of Business Administration, University of Texas at El Paso
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