Firms Use Business Classes to Sell Products

Cadillac, Honda, Citibank and even the FBI and the government of Morocco are "hiring" U.S. business college classes to help them sell their products to young people. Corporate clients pay about $20,000 to fund a one-semester business class at up to 50 universities across the United States.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

They are known as generation Y. Today's 10- to 25-year-olds are the biggest generation since the baby boomers. And research shows that gen Y is not watching TV or reading newspapers faithfully, and that means businesses have to find new ways to reach young ears. One California company has found a way in on college campuses. Shirley Skeel reports.

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SHIRLEY SKEEL reporting:

At Sacramento State University, a dozen business students hand out free submarine sandwiches to the boom of hip-hop music. They're all wearing the same black T-shirt. It reads `Wanted by the FBI.' Chris Cook is manning an FBI booth. He says his marketing class this semester has just one assignment: Get students to join the FBI.

Mr. CHRIS COOK (Student): When people think of FBI, they just think criminal justice major. But once students find out the demand for accounting is really big and also engineering and physical sciences, they're actually interested.

SKEEL: The man behind this unusual class assignment is not an educator. He's entrepreneur Tony Scrow(ph), founder of EdVentures, a Northern California marketing firm.

Mr. TONY SCROW (Founder, EdVentures): The approach that we've taken is taking an academic model and build a hands-on project, where students have a real client who gives them real objectives, who gives them real money to spend.

SKEEL: Here's how it works. For a hefty $22,000 fee per class, corporations or government agencies hire EdVenture to set up a partnership between the business and dozens of college business classes across the country. The client, ranging from the FBI or CIA to Citibank or Ford Motor Company, may ask each class to devise a marketing plan for a new product or to help recruit staff or to do research. The students, monitored closely by EdVenture, set up teams handling strategy, research, finance and product marketing.

Mr. SCROW: They become brand ambassadors, brand experts or zealous missionaries, as one of our clients says.

SKEEL: Scrow says hooking up companies and college kids is great business. His marketing firm's revenues have doubled in five years. Corporate clients seem happy, too. Tom Payton is Honda's national marketing manager.

Mr. TOM PAYTON (National Marketing Manager, Honda): They've studied your company. They know your perspective. And they're looking at the various programs that are out there that says, `Hey, you know what? This is working or this isn't working for you.'

SKEEL: The students' marketing can be unorthodox. Students at Texas Christian University held rodeos using a `Saddle up with Saturn' theme for General Motors. For the FBI, students at California State in Fullerton ran around dressed as "X-Files" aliens. The FBI believes student marketers in classes nationwide have attracted 2,000 new applicants. But some see a darker side to this partnership. Alex Molnar is director of the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University.

Mr. ALEX MOLNAR (Director, Education Policy Studies Laboratory, Arizona State University): There's a line between providing students with practical, hands-on activities and turning universities into flea markets for corporations. But it seems as though the interests of the corporation is what's being put in the forefront here.

SKEEL: There is a line, agrees Sacramento State marketing Professor Kristie Hansen, but she believes her students are the ultimate winners.

Professor KRISTIE HANSEN (Sacramento State University): By the end of the semester they're in a different place because they really see it as, `OK, now I can do something like that.'

SKEEL: Derek Molnar(ph), a business undergrad, says the classes give him an edge.

Mr. DEREK MOLNAR (Student): I get to put on my resume that I was a project manager for a Fortune 500 company. If it comes down to somebody else who's got a couple of degrees and me, who shows that I've actually done the work...

SKEEL: Next spring there's a more unusual challenge for Edventure. The government of Morocco wants US college students to find ways to sell the country as a prime spot for American investment. For NPR News, I'm Shirley Skeel.

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Correction Jan. 25, 2006

The full name of a company featured in this report is EdVenture Partners.

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