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Student consultants help
businesses make the grade

Getting help from an MBA studentIf you'd like to hire a consultant to help solve a problem, but think that option is ludicrously expensive, call a nearby university and see if it has students able and willing to do the job.

Increasingly, universities will say yes, because today's MBA student is tomorrow's six-figure business consultant.

But you can get them to come work for you first -- and often the price you'll have to pay is nothing, or next to it. Universities large and small have programs that let their students dissect businesses.

A good deal for all
For the students, it's great training for a career in business -- specifically, consulting. "About 50 percent of the MBA students in our program go to work afterward for one of the Big 12 consulting firms," says August Schomburg, director of graduate programs for the Kogod School of Business at American University in Washington, D.C. "Consulting is a very good opportunity for them because not only does it pay well, it also leads to many other things."

For small-business owners, it's a great deal. Teams of five Kogod students under the supervision of one or more faculty members undertake 16-week consulting projects for companies in the mid-Atlantic region. Recent customers have included Johnson's Flower & Garden Centers and Intelsat, a satellite communications company.

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Students examine the problem the customer wants solved, decide what needs to be done, get management approval and then do the job, Schomburg says. Companies are charged only expenses.

At UCLA's Anderson School, faculty-led teams of graduate students take on more than 80 consulting projects a year at companies all over the country, according to project manager Ginger Johnson.

Companies pay $2,500. For that they get six months of in-depth attention, including at least two on-site visits, and a 40-page final report. The report provides a strategic analysis of the company, its industry and markets, and an analysis of the problem under consideration, including potential causes and strategic options.

A satisfied customer
Pro Band Sports Industries Inc. has commissioned three Anderson School field studies on growth and marketing strategies. "Had we paid a consultant to do one of the projects that the Anderson students did, it would have cost us at least $100,000," says Linda Taylor Fareed, Pro Band's CEO. "And I don't believe professional consultants could have done a finer job than these MBAs."

Don't think you'll be turning your business over to some wet-behind-the-ears kids who want to play with your money. Most MBA students aren't kids. Graduate schools generally require that applicants to business programs have spent at least a couple of years working in a business environment. Many MBA candidates have more experience than that.

But even universities that have only undergraduate programs sometimes offer consulting services that can be valuable to their communities.

For instance, at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., all graduating seniors in the Foster College of Business Administration are required to complete a senior consulting project. More than 2,000 area small businesses have benefited from this free program in the last 20 years, says Roger Luman, director of the Bradley Small Business Development Center and supervisor of the senior projects. Students work with businesses in the areas of accounting, advertising, market research, inventory control and other areas of management.

Another option worth exploring is faculty consulting. At the University of the Pacific's Eberhardt School of Business in Stockton, Calif., faculty members offer a variety of staff and executive training, tailored individually to the needs of the customer, says Victor Preisser, director of the program. Employers are charged from $15 to $28 per hour for each person receiving the training.

Go local when looking for advice
Preisser believes that hiring a consultant from a locally focused university such as his can be especially valuable because it establishes a long-term relationship that can have other rewards. "We know the community, and we go from training to market research to strategic planning to finding them interns."

If you are interested in hiring student consultants, here is some advice from faculty members involved in these projects:

  • Start by calling a nearby university. While some nationally focused graduate schools take on projects far from home, you're more likely to get help from a school that is in your region.
  • Define and focus what you would like to have done. Time available is usually relatively short. You'll be more satisfied with the results if you don't spread your student consultants too thin.
  • Get to know the faculty supervisor and be readily available to answer questions and provide information. In return, ask that he or she provide you with regular status updates.
  • Make time to participate in creative brainstorming sessions. Listen to the students' ideas and suggestions. Even when they seem off-point, they can be offering valuable feedback.
  • Push for clear results and a list of action steps. Don't let your consultants get away with being too theoretical or impractical. If that's the result, neither of you will benefit.
  • If it's not offered, insist on a written report.

Jennie L. Phipps is a contributing editor based in Michigan
To comment on this story, please e-mail the
Bankrate.com editors

-- Posted: April 17, 2000

 

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