Illinois State University ranked seventh overall on Best’s Review’s Survey of Leading College Insurance and Risk Management Programs released in February 2020.

Conducted by the insurance rating agency AM Best, the survey sought to determine where insurance companies find their new talent and what schools are best preparing students for a career in the industry. It polled more than 330 industry professionals and especially emphasized the responses garnered from those involved in the hiring process and human resources personnel. ISU was one of four schools that “rated particularly high among the insurance carrier hiring managers interviewed by Best’s Review,” according to a press release from the magazine.

Dr. Domingo Castelo Joaquin, professor and interim chair of the Department of Finance, Insurance and Law, was not surprised to learn of the ISU program’s success.

“One often hears the saying, ‘It’s not what you know but who you know.’ Actually, what often makes the difference is not who you know, but who knows you,” he observed. “The employers know ISU, and they consider us as having one of the top programs in the country. What our graduates know is valued highly, and the fact that employers know what our students know makes all the difference for our graduates.”

The ISU Risk Management and Insurance faculty provide a challenging learning environment and prepare students for a variety of jobs in a changing world.

Associate Professor Kevin Ahlgrim described the ongoing efforts to keep coursework relevant to current trends and to remain “responsive to industry needs.” He explained how members of the advisory board for the Katie School of Insurance and Risk Management provide feedback and make suggestions for curriculum updates.

“For example, they requested more quantitative topics and more spreadsheet proficiency,” recalled Ahlgrim, who will be the new FIL department chair as of July 1. “As a result, I created a course that is taught in the computer lab that requires students to access insurer financial statement data and analyze it in Excel to make comparisons about different companies or different lines of insurance business. This injects much needed technology into a rapidly changing industry landscape.”

As evidence of the department’s innovative strategies, Ahlgrim also pointed to the Insurance Operations class, which utilizes a semester-long computer simulation to give students a real life understanding of insurance companies and “how multiple operating decisions may affect insurer performance, from financial performance, customer satisfaction or employee turnover.”

In addition to strong academics, Katie School Director Jim Jones credits the program’s emphasis on co-curricular activities with setting ISU apart from the crowd. Many of these opportunities come through the Katie School, which serves as a center to support faculty and bolster student learning by providing industry connections and the chance “to engage in real world projects,” he observed.

Ahlgrim noted involvement in Katie School activities helps to strengthen students’ understanding and appreciation of what they learn in the classroom by providing them “direct experience in the subject matter.”

“We have a very close connection with our industry partners,” said Katie School Director Jim Jones. He went on to describe the Katie School’s advisory board and alumni who serve as mentors as “very active and engaged.”

This year, in addition to attending conferences, networking with industry partners, and pursuing professional designations while still in college, ISU students are participating in a variety of intercollegiate competitions related to risk management case studies, insurance agency management and insurance sales. Additionally, ISU is hosting an internal statistical case competition on risk analytic and a data wrangling competition that challenges students to sharpen their software skills and make a presentation before industry professionals serving as judges. Students also have partnered with employees at Pinnacle Actuarial Resources, Inc., to develop presentations about emerging risks. Prior to spring break, the Katie School also co-sponsored a panel discussion and networking event called The Power of an Inclusive Workforce.

Another conduit for this type of practical learning is the University’s Innovation Consulting Community, which allows students to join teams researching business questions for actual clients. Among this year’s projects are one examining the uses of blockchain technology for the insurance industry and another studying how virtual reality can be used as a training platform for claims adjusters.

While students do not receive class credit for participating in these co-curricular activities and competitions, they gain valuable hands-on experience and can develop their soft skills in preparation for entering the workforce. Jones noted these types of learning and professional development opportunities attract many students to the risk management and insurance major.

Another important piece in the puzzle of ISU’s success is the program’s focus on working with members of the industry.

“We have a very close connection with our industry partners,” said Jones. He went on to describe the Katie School’s advisory board and alumni who serve as mentors as “very active and engaged.”

“When I talk to colleagues at other universities, they just don’t have the same kind of industry connection,” he continued. “Over the course of a year, we have somewhere between 80 and 90 industry people coming through here talking about their jobs, what they do and the kind of things students need to be successful.”

These industry connections help students to develop a better understanding of the types of careers available in insurance and challenge them to connect what they learn in the classroom to what they want to pursue after graduation. They also open the door for ISU students to find jobs, internships and mentors.

“The support of the industry allows our students to round out their experiences, which drives more engagement in the classroom,” observed Ahlgrim, who applauded Katie School Associate Director Debbie Babcock for her work to connect students with insurance companies and professionals so that they can have these kinds of beneficial opportunities. He also described Jones as the “creative force behind the Katie School” and noted his relationship with industry partners “sets a vision to innovate.”

Looking to the future, there is little doubt that this winning combination of innovative classroom experiences, educational hands-on activities and meaningful connections with industry professionals will continue to keep ISU’s risk management and insurance program at the top of the pack nationwide.