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Middle Tennessee State University, which didn’t make a blip on the radar in Best’s Review’s last survey, was the top vote-getter in this year’s poll of top risk management and insurance programs. The result was surprising…until you learn the origins of the program.
  • Kate Smith
  • February 2020
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For more than a quarter of a century, Middle Tennessee State University offered a concentration in insurance. But four years ago, it decided it was time to develop a full-fledged risk management and insurance program.

The university reached out to Dave Wood. Over the course of 30 years, Wood built a hugely successful RMI program at North Carolina's Appalachian State University. Middle Tennessee State recruited him to do the same in Murfreesboro.

Since 2016, Wood has been building—and trying to spread the word about—MTSU's RMI program.

“We've been the best kept secret,” Wood said. “But we're trying to change that.”

The secret, it seems, is out.

Dr. Dave Wood Professor, Martin Chair of Insurance Middle Tennessee State University

We’ve been the best kept secret. But we’re trying to change that.

Dr. Dave Wood
Professor, Martin Chair of Insurance
Middle Tennessee State University

Middle Tennessee State was the top vote-getter in a Best's Review survey of RMI programs. The magazine asked carriers, readers, and other insurance professionals which RMI programs are doing the best job preparing students for careers in the industry. Of the 444 votes cast, MTSU received 62, or 14%.

The fledgling program was hailed for the real-world experience it provides students, from offering a study abroad program in London to coordinating not only internships but also part-time jobs for them within the industry.

“MTSU is a role model for other schools,” one respondent said.

Joining Middle Tennessee State at the top of the survey results were Olivet College, Temple University and the University of Georgia. Wood's former program, Appalachian State, also earned high marks, landing the No. 9 spot among the top 10 vote-getters.

Rounding out the Top 10 were Eastern Kentucky University, St. John's University, Illinois State University, Florida State University, and Saint Joseph's University.

This marks the second time Best's Review has conducted this survey on RMI programs, the last time being in 2018. This year's results show a shift toward regional allegiance and a slight shakeup at the top of the poll.

Two years ago, four well-established big-name programs—Florida State, Illinois State, Temple and Georgia—were the top performers.

While Georgia and Temple stayed in the top four, Middle Tennessee and Olivet shook up the leader board by taking the top two spots in the 2020 poll.

Their performance is noteworthy for multiple reasons. First, Middle Tennessee didn't even make the top 20 in 2018. And Olivet, while a Top 10 performer in the last survey, is a fraction of the size of other RMI programs.

Olivet's popularity is particularly impressive given its enrollment of a mere 1,098 students. What it lacks in size, respondents say, it makes up for in passion.

“Students come out with not only foundational insurance knowledge, but they also have a passion for the industry,” one hiring manager said. “They get to the WHY of why insurance is important.”

In addition to Middle Tennessee State, one other new school cracked the Top 10 this year—Eastern Kentucky. The Richmond, Ky., school received high marks for its interactions with the industry.

“The program provides countless opportunities to network with professionals and learn about the industry hands on,” one voter said. “They are extremely active in preparing students for careers in insurance.”

Local Appeal

Kentucky, Olivet and Middle Tennessee were propelled to the top by strong regional support.

Roughly 85% of Eastern Kentucky's votes came from within the state of Kentucky. Olivet, located in Olivet, Mich., saw 65% of its votes come from in-state respondents.

“Their program is outstanding,” one Michigan-based hiring manager said. “When they come in they understand the different lines of coverage and the many opportunities in the insurance business. We have found students from Olivet able and wanting to learn what [our company] has to offer.”

But no state rallied as hard as Tennessee. Close to 95% of Middle Tennessee's votes came from within its home state.

“MTSU is diligently working on properly preparing their students for jobs in our industry,” one Nashville-based recruiter said.

While it would be easy to assume Middle Tennessee's votes came from its alumni, that was not the case. The vast majority (nearly 70%) of its votes came from industry professionals with no affiliation with the school, other than hiring its graduates.

Middle Tennessee's popularity within the community likely stems from Wood's extensive industry outreach efforts. In building the program, creating connections with local professionals has been a cornerstone of the process.

“When I got here there had been a risk management concentration within the finance major, and they had done a good job establishing scholarship support,” Wood said. “My goal was to develop more relationships with the industry and focus more on what students do after they graduate, in terms of creating job opportunities.”

The job opportunities aren't limited to internships and post-graduation. Because many of its students are paying their own way through college, Middle Tennessee tries to place them in part-time jobs with carriers and agencies.

“The students here are hard-working,” Wood said. “They're very salt of the Earth. A lot of them are working and juggling obligations while going to school. It's important for us to develop part-time job opportunities for them.”

Employers in Tennessee say they appreciate the real-world experience Middle Tennessee State graduates have when they enter the workforce full time.

“It takes less time for them to get up to speed,” one respondent said.

Also highly appreciated is a study abroad course that allows Middle Tennessee students to study surplus lines, captives and reinsurance in London. Wood brought the idea over from Appalachian State, which offers a similar course.

“That's the smartest thing I've ever done,” he said. “We look at the transfer of risk from Main Street USA through all of the marketing channels, which brings in surplus lines, and that brings up alternatives, which brings in captives, and then reinsurance.”

The Appalachian State program, not surprisingly, also received praise for its study abroad opportunities.

“Appalachian students are well prepared on the practical as well as the theoretical aspects of the business,” one recruiter said. “Great intern opportunities and Lloyds Bermuda market visits. They also spend a considerable amount of time on the E&S side of the business.”

Interesting Finds

Beyond regional preferences, another trend emerged in the findings—recruiter preferences.

Four programs rated particularly high among the insurance carrier hiring managers interviewed by Best's Review. Temple, University of Georgia, Illinois State and the University of Wisconsin were favorites among recruiters.

In calculating the results, Best's Review doubled the weight of responses given by recruiters for carriers.

While Temple would have remained among the top four vote-getters even without the help of recruiters, its score was boosted even higher due to its popularity among hiring managers. The Philadelphia school was mentioned by 10 recruiters, adding 20 points to its total votes.

As one recruiter said, “Schools should take interest in the program that Temple University offers. These students are dressed to impress, [they're] overall good communicators, [they're] asking the right questions in interviews. They're prepared to answer interview questions, and are friendly and professional. And they have a strong work ethic. I believe Temple has a low tolerance for those with a lack of effort and it shows. Their students are thinking critically and ready for challenging work.”

Temple, Saint Joseph's and St. John's often were clustered together in responses. Their graduates were consistently cited as prepared, professional and poised.

As one recruiter put it, “Those students know who we are. That's really important. We're a small company. They know who [our CEO] is, they know about our company, and they come prepared. They know what our history is and what we hire for. That goes a long way.”

Also of note in this year's survey, there were five new entrants among the Top 20 vote-getters. Making their debut in 2020, in addition to Middle Tennessee, were Baylor University, Ferris State University, the University of Cincinnati and the University of Connecticut.

California State University, Fullerton, also climbed in the last two years. It ranked No. 15 in the voting tally in 2020.

“To me, it's the combination of theory with practice that makes us unique,” said Weili Lu, director of Cal State Fullerton's Center for Insurance Studies. “We are rooted in the industry, and our students can graduate with professional designations that put them one step ahead of others.”

Cal State Fullerton, which offers a concentration in risk management and insurance, is one of the few West Coast programs.

“The program is the largest and strongest west of the Mississippi,” Leah Young, career and professional development adviser at the school, said.

It also recently received a new designation, announcing last fall that the Center for Insurance Studies is changing its name to the School of Risk Management and Insurance. Internally, the change will allow Lu and her team to collaborate with other departments on multidisciplinary programs and certificates, such as a working with the engineering school on a disaster recovery and claim adjusting program.

Externally, Lu hopes it will help with more visibility and funding.

“The industry support to us has been very important,” Lu said. “We want to give back to the industry by providing them a qualified next generation of employees.”



Click here to view map showing the locations of the top performing schools in Best's Review's survey of risk management and insurance programs.

Kate Smith is managing editor of Best’s Review. She can be reached at

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