When thinking about whether to advise young people to go to business school, William Keep often thinks of a plaque he saw at the University of Georgia. The plaque was dedicated to the school’s students who had begun their educations just before the Civil War broke out. Instead of marching down the aisles to get their degrees, they ended up marching to Antietam and Gettysburg.
Those students went to college never intending to go to war, but that’s what happened. To Keep, the plaque highlights one of the unavoidable truths of any decision about where to go to school (or any decision, really,) which is that the future is uncertain and unpredictable.
Keep, the dean of the business school at the College of New Jersey, believes that deciding whether to go to college, and where, is part speculation, part calculation, and part idealism. “Like any decision where you are going to invest money, there’s always uncertainty associated with it,” he says.
Keep will be on a panel of speakers at the MidJersey Chamber of Commerce’s Higher Education Breakfast Forum, held Thursday, June 12, from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. at the NJHA conference and event center at 760 Alexander Road. For more information, visit www.midjerseychamber.org or call 609-689-9960. Tickets are $25 for members, $35 for nonmembers.
Keep certainly didn’t know what would happen when he left a steady blue-collar job to go off to college. Keep grew up in Jackson, Michigan. His father was a potato chip salesman who had a Frito Lay truck and a route. Keep worked as a hospital orderly during high school. When he graduated, the Vietnam War was underway, and he joined the Coast Guard. Two years in, at age 19, he married. After leaving the Coast Guard, he worked as an electrical technician in a factory and as a mailman.
Keep made the fateful decision to quit his mailman job and study at the University of Michigan, which led to him being the first person in his family to graduate from college. He had his first son while he was a freshman. To support his family, he began a full-time internship with a congressman who was soon swept out of office in the 1980 “Reagan Revolution.” Despite lacking a full-time job, he decided to complete his degree. After graduation, he went into business, working for an electrical parts distributor in St. Paul. Later, he returned to the university for his PhD in marketing, and at age 33, he began his academic career teaching marketing at Michigan State.
Today his older son has a doctorate, and his younger son is working on one. For Keep, getting an education was a calculated risk that paid off. “Twice as an adult, I made a conscious decision to get more education, and in both cases it changed my life,” he says.
Not just economic. Keep says youngsters deciding whether to go to business school should keep in mind that college is not a purely economic decision. The nobler goals of education — cultivation, enlightenment, and discipline — are of incalculable value. “For example, one of the benefits of education is being well read. How do you quantify the benefit of being more widely read? This notion that you can precisely calculate return on investment is incorrect.”
It’s also foolish to pursue the major that has the most in-demand jobs if you have no talent for the field. “Accountants have the highest job placement ratings. But I took two accounting courses and I hated both of them, so I’m pretty sure I would have been a lousy accountant,” Keep says.
But not un-economic either. Still, Keep doesn’t advise pursuing education for its own sake, with no plan to make a living, and with no regard to cost. “I encourage my sons and all my students to think in terms of their own independence,” he says. “When you’re 30 years old, your parents will have wished the best for you, but you will own the situation you are in.
Paying attention to value is important too, as it is in any business decision. “Education is something we purchase, and if we’re not careful, we can pay too much.”
Keep has advice for businesses as well as his students. At the education conference, Keep will discuss the relationship between higher education and the business community. Not only do colleges feed graduates into the job market, they turn to the local business community for training. Internships are now a big part of the college experience for many students and are often the key to getting a job after graduation. Keep says a good internship program can benefit employers as well as students.
Internships are good for recruiting. Keep says businesses looking for new talent could do much worse than to use a good internship program for recruiting. “There’s a cost of searching for talent, of both time and money,” he says. “For employers, an internship is time well spent. An employer, in every interview, no matter what questions they ask, want to know three things: One, do you know what you want? Two: Can you do what we want you to do? Three: Are you the kind of person we want to work with?” Finding new hires from internships can help employees identify people who meet those three criteria.
Pay up. Keep advises businesses to offer paid internships. “Internal to the company, it makes the company take the process more seriously,” he says. “They have skin in the game, and it sends the message to the students that it is a serious relationship.”
How to attract top talent. Keep believes businesses can attract the best young workers not by offering the cushiest jobs or the most flexible work schedules, but by offering a long-term set of benefits: developing skills that will further their careers.
Keep says New Jersey’s educated work force is the key to its economy, and that business schools will continue to be at the heart of the business community in the years to come. “We are part of the social fiber of the community, and we get great Jersey kids to come to our schools.”