Washington and Lee is a unique liberal arts university because of its pre-professional emphasis, particularly with its accredited business school, the Williams School of Commerce, Economics and Politics.
The C-School, as it's known, is wildly popular among students and parents obsessed with jobs after graduation.
Senior Sam Bush said he chose to major in business administration and accounting as a practical matter.
"My parents aren’t paying $70,000 a year so I can just explore myself," Bush said. "I wouldn’t want to send my kid to a school and have to pay 70 grand a year just so they can explore themselves. You know, I want an end goal. I want to see a return on my investment."
But Washington and Lee faculty and administrators are at odds with some students and their parents. The faculty and administrators want to entice C-School majors to take more courses and major in the College, the home of the traditional liberal arts disciplines.
Professor of Business Administration Robert Ballenger said the increasing enrollment in the C-School puts pressure on the faculty.
"We feel, and I think the rest of the university feels, that we have too many business majors, and there’s only so many business faculty to go around," he said. "And we are a liberal arts institution that happens to offer professional degrees."
Of the 1,838 undergraduates at Washington and Lee, 46 percent have declared at least one major in the C-School, according to university enrollment data. Forty-nine, or nearly 8 percent, of the C-School students are double-majoring with both disciplines in the Williams School.
The C-School offers majors in accounting and business administration, which are typical business school fare. But it also includes economics and politics, which are usually embedded in the liberal arts.
In an effort to address demand, the university plans to gut and remodel Huntley Hall, which houses the C-School. It also will build an addition that will consume a popular patio area adjacent to the building. The cost will be nearly $19.4 million.
Robert Straughan, dean of the Williams school, said the expansion is needed because classroom availability has been tight for years.
"The renovation and expansion of Huntley Hall is critical. We have been constrained by classroom availability for many years. During most or all of my 19 years at W&L, Huntley has been the most heavily utilized classroom building on campus, well beyond the recommended maximum rate."
What drives students to the C-School? Jobs. Students want to be in position to compete for the best, highest-paying entry level jobs on Wall Street and in corporate America—and parents want that too for their children.
And it’s working so well that C-School students often land jobs before they’ve bought their caps and gowns.
In 2017, The New York Times reported that the median income of Washington and Lee graduates at the age of 34 was $78,200. For men, it was $95,400, while women only earned a median income of $58,500. Half of those graduates end up in the top 10 percent income echelon. But most of those students were born into the top income brackets, and they stayed there.
Students still pay attention to such elite rankings. "One of my big draws to the school was, doing some research on it, I think they were rated number one on the Economist for jobs out of college," Bush said.
Another draw: Students don’t have to apply for admittance into the C-School. At W&L, students are automatically accepted into the disciplines of their choice.
"When I was applying to college, it was super important to me to have the school that didn’t have a business program that you had to apply to … you could kind of pick and choose from other places on campus but also opt in," said Caitlin Reardon, a junior business administration and politics double major. "That was why I came to W&L, and why the C-School was really appealing to me."
Students also like the way politics is taught at W&L. At other schools, political science is usually the option, but it is more theoretical. In the C-School, students are taught about politics with a grounding in business.
Ballenger said many of the university’s most successful alumni majored in disciplines outside of the C-School.
"There’s this misperception that business is a ticket to a good job, especially with parents," he said.
The Williams School’s reputation as a job-generating machine attracts students to its courses to the point that it is increasingly difficult for C-School majors and non-majors to get a seat in some classes.
Senior Jennings Huntley said he declared a business administration major to navigate limited class availability during registration.
Ballenger said students often major in the C-School not because they’re passionate about the subject. "They’re doing it because they want access to business courses that maybe they personally want ... or their parents think they should have access to those courses," he said.
Even students who are declared within the C-School can find themselves fighting for limited spots per class, which makes planning ahead for studying abroad difficult. Mattie Grant, a sophomore accounting major, said she got into classes she needed by chance in the 2019 winter term.
"I will say there were a lot of times especially this semester where I was on waitlists and just happened to get into the class that I needed," Grant said. "In the end, it all ended up working out fine but only because one person decided to drop a statistics class and one person transferred into a different business class."
Grant said she was worried that she couldn’t earn all the credits she needed to stay on track and go abroad.
Faculty in the Williams School are working on possible solutions, including a new finance-related major and a couple of interdisciplinary minors, that they hope will give students the exposure to business courses they want and provide them with the freedom to major in the liberal arts.
Several introductory classes have been combined to cut down on the number of classes that need to be taught. For example, managerial accounting and financial accounting were merged to create a general introduction to accounting course.
Students said such changes are watering down the curriculum, rather than expanding their depth into the field of study.
Huntley said financial accounting is one of the most important classes a business administration or accounting major can take at Washington and Lee. He said the learning curve to the material is so steep that it justifies maintaining a stand-alone course solely for financial accounting.
"I feel like for most students, it takes four weeks into the term until after the first test before it clicks, what accounting is," Huntley said. "It’s almost like learning a new language in some senses."
Megan Philips, a junior business administration major, said she expects her C-School education to serve her well. "I don’t know where I’ll be in the next 15 years, but I hope I’ll be able to apply what I learned in different classes to what I’m doing," she said. "We’re not held to one concentration, so we can apply that knowledge to a lot of different jobs in the future."