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A Competitive Edge

Student programs based on NBC's The Apprentice are a win for institutions.
University Business, Jan 2007

The words "you're fired!" will probably forever be linked to Donald Trump and his NBC reality show The Apprentice, in which candidates compete on business tasks to get hired by Trump. Shortly after its 2004 debut, a phenomenon began to blossom on college campuses nationwide-academic programs based on the series everyone was talking about. The programs are helping students land jobs after graduation-both directly and indirectly through networking opportunities. Also, the programs benefit colleges and universities by gaining positive publicity, increasing interest among prospective students, and building alumni engagement.

Campus renditions of The Apprentice continue to gain in popularity, despite the reality show's decreasing ratings (it has slipped from seventh during the first season to 51st during season five).

At Towson University (Md.), the trend is thriving. The Associate competition at Towson's College of Business and Economics is about to start its third season.

Open only to graduating seniors in the business school, the program was started in 2005 by Laleh Malek, director of professional experience. Malek created The Associate after discussions in her marketing classes about The Apprentice. "I figured if we're talking about it so much, we should host a similar competition here," she recalls.

Offered as an extracurricular activity each spring, The Associate splits eight contestants into two teams, which are presented with five case studies by area companies. Two business executives and Towson's President Robert L. Caret provide students with insight and advice at weekly boardroom sessions, and then a candidate is "fired" from the losing project team. The grand prize of the two-month competition is a real job, a permanent position at the participating chief executive's company.

"I have been extremely pleased with student hires, which makes me more inclined to look at Towson when we have entry-level openings." -Edwin F. Hale Sr., CEO, 1st Mariner Bancorp

Unlike on The Apprentice, sometimes there is more than one winner. During the first round of the competition, Edwin F. Hale Sr., CEO and chairman of the board of Baltimore-based 1st Mariner Bancorp, was so impressed with the students that it led him to offer permanent positions to both of the finalists. "I have been extremely pleased with student hires, which makes me more inclined to look at Towson when we have entry-level openings," Hale says.

Gaining local and national attention in the media makes the competition even more worthwhile for Towson. The Baltimore Sun, Baltimore Business Journal, Entrepreneur magazine, and other publications have covered The Associate, helping to strengthen the university's branding campaign, Thinking Outside.

"The rewards are numerous, but the main reason why someone should become involved in a program like The Associate is the opportunity to mentor a group of zealous, young professionals," Hale says. "Sharing their excitement about working in business renews your own."

The same can be said about Babson College's (Mass.) Apprentice-like course, The Ultimate Entrepreneurial Challenge, which is open to both undergraduate and graduate students in all disciplines. Corporate participant Bill Bishop has found that the best part about working with Babson students is hearing their point of view on real-time issues.

"I like seeing a fresh point of view on business issues; the students have no bias from past ideas or office politics," explains Bishop, who is CEO of The Blue Buffalo Company, a pet food manufacturer based in Connecticut. "Students gain a true business experience, more than just what's in the textbook. We are giving them challenges that are actually happening in the business world.

"It's a win-win situation; the program is good for executives and students," Bishop adds. "The biggest problem I've had is finding the time to talk to all the students who want to talk to me. They truly are fun to work with."

Working on case studies ranging from finance to negotiation, Babson students have worked with big names like Gillette, Reebok, Marquis Jet, and Est?e Lauder, among others. Not to mention, like Towson's program, the course has gained media coverage. The class appeared four times on CNBC and has been mentioned in more than 200 newspaper articles.

Leonard Green, adjunct professor of entrepreneurship and developer of the course, has even invited a few members of The Apprentice's cast to judge his students' performance.

"I believe that Babson students who are participating in this competition are better than the contestants on Donald Trump's show," Green says. "Each year they get better and better. My students are smart without me; I'm fine-tuning them. A lot of people say you can't teach entrepreneurship, but I think you can."

Green began The Ultimate Entrepreneurial Challenge shortly after hearing that there was a course slot available on Tuesday evenings. Rather than going with courses that had already been done before, he incorporated his interest in The Apprentice into the curricular needs of Babson's entrepreneurship program-only with no textbooks and no tests. Instead, students receive three cases to complete per week.

The nontraditional course has created some buzz around campus, notes Green. Student rankings gave it the highest ratings compared to any other course offered at the college.

From an evaluation standpoint within the course, what better way to determine whether a student should pass or fail but have executives make the decision? There's also the added bonus of offering students the opportunity to network closely with company executives.

"Any time that we can place our students with the kind of businesses that they're being placed with through the program is a true test of how well they're doing as college students," Green points out. When alumni who have taken the course support the college, they acknowledge that the course added value to their education.

Phil Maurizi, a May 2006 graduate of Taylor University Fort Wayne (Ind.), couldn't agree more about the value of Apprentice-like programs. A former student of TUFW's Guerrilla Marketing class, Maurizi supports the concept so much that he accepted a full-time position at TUFW to assist the program coordinator.

"Looking back as an alumnus, I believe that it is imperative that students are in the marketplace networking," Maurizi says. "We felt like we owned this class. Once you apply what you're learning, you actually start to like it more. It makes you feel more like what you're learning actually matters."

The professor responsible for invoking this feel-good spirit is Evan Wood, associate dean for strategic planning and program development, and chair of the Department of Management and Communications, at Taylor University Fort Wayne. Wood, who is also an assistant professor and campus assessment coordinator, attributes his love for Trump's Apprentice as the main reason behind starting the course.

In a boardroom setting, Guerrilla Marketing students receive feedback and grades from judges. With four projects every two weeks, spanning a total of eight weeks, Guerrilla Marketing will be offered every other year.

"I believe that Babson students who are participating in this competition are better than the contestants on Donald Trump's show. Each year they get better and better." -Leonard Green, Babson College

Despite the small class size (10 last year) and the fact that TUFW itself is a small, 975-student extension of TU's main campus in Upland, Guerilla Marketing has attracted executives from Red Bull, the popular energy drink makers. In addition, students were able to help two small nonprofit organizations that support the families of babies with congenial heart disease.

Guerrilla Marketing, which Wood says has also received great press, has helped the university in the recruitment of prospective students. Since the course was launched in 2005, the campus has doubled its freshmen class from 13 to 26, with an increase of students meeting the institution's honors qualification (9 of the 26 incoming freshmen met honors requirements).

"I mention this course with just about every person I speak with," Wood explains. "As a small college, it sets us apart from what other schools are doing in the area."

One state over, Northern Illinois University hosted what they called a Marketing Apprentice Class for one semester in fall 2004, just after The Apprentice first aired. Denise Schoenbachler, dean of the College of Business, says two professors turned the dream to a reality after hearing students say they wish they could be on the show.

Competing on four teams, 16 students enrolled in the class to vie for a chance to win a $4,000 scholarship, which would be split four ways among the members of the winning team. Funding for the scholarship was provided by alumni of the college, whom Schoenbachler says continue to give to the college even years after the class was held. (The college has experienced an overall increase in alumni support.)

Although NIU no longer offers the course, Schoenbachler, who was chair of the Department of Marketing at the time, recalls the experience as invaluable, especially in terms of reconnecting with alumni. The two alumni who served as "The Donalds" continue to stay involved. One has joined the College's Board of Advisors, and the other became a member of the College's Strategic Planning Council and also teaches part-time.

"Our students learned from the group of alumni, who became re-enthused at the same time. It was a blast," Schoenbachler recalls. "The students took it to a [higher] level than we ever expected."

In one week, students raised $11,000 to send a care package to soldiers in Iraq. One student even landed a spot on a local TV morning news show to promote the effort.

"The class is one of those things that we will never forget," Schoenbachler says. "I truly feel like the students who were in the class will be interested and engaged alumni of the college forever."

Mike Sicard, associate professor of management in the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University (Tenn.), meets regularly with former students of the four-week Accelerator program, of which he is director. The Accelerator, open to both undergraduate and recent graduates, features classroom instruction and hands-on experience with dozens of executives from different industries. Students help those executives address the business issues they're facing.

The program not only keeps Sicard in touch with former students, but also encourages Vanderbilt undergraduates to join the business school, while also inspiring graduates to return to the institution to pursue the master's of finance program.

Prior to launching The Accelerator, the Nashville institution hosted focus groups asking students what their needs were. Now, two years into the program, the number of students opting to sign up is steadily increasing. Moreover, the number of companies that students have connected with through the program's networking breakfasts, lunches, and dinners has easily surpassed the 100 mark. While they don't compete for an actual job offer, they're making connections with hiring managers.

"Businesses that have been involved like what they've seen and students have responded very favorably," Sicard says of the program. "If you do it well, they get excited."

Carrie Oleynik is the communications specialist in the College of Business and Economics at Towson University (Md.).

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