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College Standouts: Survey Provides View of Top College Risk Management and Insurance Programs

Eastern Kentucky University, benefiting from its online program amid COVID-19 shutdowns, was the top vote-getter in the Best’s Review biennial poll of top risk management and insurance programs. The programs were recognized for their academic rigor as well as soft-skills training.
  • Tom Davis
  • February 2022

Key Points

  • Adaptation: Eastern Kentucky University was hailed for the real-world experience it provides students, from offering a study abroad program and placing students in high-paying jobs and constructive internships to offering top-notch online instruction amid COVID.
  • Etiquette: Appalachian State University boasts a dining etiquette component of its RMI program, noting that students learn everything from setting the table to how to handle alcohol.
  • Recruitment: Nearly 80% of the overall responses came from people who are either entirely or partially responsible for hiring employees.

Teaching interpersonal skills is at the heart of an insurance education, right down to demonstrating the proper way to dine—and even drink—with clients. So while the pandemic was closing classrooms and with colleges still struggling to engage their students as some COVID protocols remain, Eastern Kentucky University has hardly skipped a beat.

EKU doesn't offer an online meal etiquette program, but it has helped faculty develop online courses and provides studio space and green screens for recording lectures. Virtual internships were launched and job postings have been shared. Professional designation reimbursements have been offered for exams that are typically provided to in-person students. “Also, if we are traveling to a location where we know that we have online students, we invite them to meet us for a meal or for coffee,” said Lisa A. Gardner, director of the Risk Management & Insurance program at Eastern Kentucky University.

“So, in short, we had this mindset that we were going to try our best to make the experience for our online students as rich as possible.”

Related: Survey: Colleges Need to Better Prepare Future Insurers for Real World

The “can-do” appeal of the program helped make Eastern Kentucky the top vote-getter in the Best's Review 2022 survey of best collegiate 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 399 votes cast, Eastern Kentucky received 68, or 17%. There were 316 respondents in the survey and they cast a total of 399 votes, with some naming more than one institution as a top school.

This marks the third time Best's Review has conducted its biennial survey on RMI programs—the first poll was taken in 2018 and the second in 2020. This year's results continue to show a shift toward a Southeastern regional allegiance.

In the survey, the EKU program was hailed for the real-world experience it provides students, from offering a study abroad program and placing students in well-paying jobs and constructive internships to offering top-notch online instruction. “The program director organizes meetings and career fairs with agents and carriers to promote recruitment of students,” said Ashley Hacker, a client service manager at Gallagher Global Brokerage who attended EKU. It certainly helped, Gardner says, that EKU was one of the first colleges to offer a fully online RMI degree program. “We try to make available to our online learners many of the experiences that our face-to-face students have,” she said.

Joining the Richmond, Kentucky, school at the top of the survey results were, in descending order: Appalachian State University, Olivet College, Florida State University, University of Wisconsin-Madison and California State University, Fullerton.

Notably missing from the results was Middle Tennessee State University, the top vote-getter in Best's Review's survey of RMI programs in 2020.

Dave Wood, who holds the Martin Chair of Insurance in the Jones College of Business at Middle Tennessee, told Best's Review that “I definitely think we should be in the poll” when informed of the results, saying the school has been “doing the right things” to make sure the college maintained its status as a nationally renowned program for insurance education. Even amid the COVID pandemic, Wood said the school still played an active role in getting students placed in internships and in full-time jobs.

He also said that Middle Tennessee State has awarded $50,000 in scholarships and the school finished second in another competition that rated college programs nationally. “We have struggled like everybody has with student engagement” amid the COVID pandemic, Wood said. “Our enrollment is down in our major. From all my colleagues that I talked to, they say they're experiencing the same thing.”

Larger schools largely dominated the Top 20 list. The exception would be Michigan's Olivet College, a top-three performer in the past two surveys, which is located in the city of the same name, 30 miles south of the state capital of Lansing.

But Olivet's results show that smaller schools whose offerings are a fraction of the size of other RMI programs are competing well with the likes of Florida State and other large institutions. Olivet has only about 1,000 students—compared to almost 44,000 at Florida State —but recruiters and industry executives celebrate its ability to prepare and place students for jobs at top insurers.

“Olivet College [provides] opportunities to earn professional designations, requires internships in the industry, [offers] faculty with extensive industry experience, explores current insurance issues and prepares students to attain executive positions through effective interactions with others,” said Kim Rathbone, managing partner for the Rathbone Group LLC, which handles the recovery and litigation of subrogation claims throughout the U.S. and Canada.

David Marlett Appalachian State University

Appalachian State University will have experts come in and have students sit down at a “real table with white linen tablecloth and different forks,” and even coach the students on how to network when there’s alcohol involved.

David Marlett
Appalachian State University

Appeal to Hiring Managers

Eastern Kentucky, Olivet and Florida State were buoyed by support from those charged with finding the next generation of insurers. Nearly 80% of the overall responses came from people who are either entirely or partially responsible for hiring employees. Ironically, despite leading the overall count, Eastern Kentucky polled low compared to other front-runners in this category in the survey. Seventy percent of EKU voters were hiring managers, compared to 92% of those who voted for Appalachian State and 85% of Olivet voters.

David Marlett, the managing director of the Brantley Risk & Insurance Center at Appalachian State University, said it helps that insurance companies and agencies from across the country advise the college's RMI program, and “when someone comes to Boone, [North Carolina,] it's intentional.” The university, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the northwestern part of the state, is about two hours from a major airport and “given our location, we have recruiters from the Carolinas and Virginia, but they also come from the Northeast, Midwest, Florida, even Arizona,” Marlett said.

“We help students find full-time jobs and internships. Our assistant director's primary mission is to connect students with employers,” he said.

Real-world experience helps, too. Similar to what other college RMI programs do, Appalachian State will show students the soft skills that help them advance.

Not all of them, however, provide what Appalachian offers: dining and even alcohol etiquette. Marlett said the school will have experts come in and have students sit down at a “real table with white linen tablecloth and different forks.” When the school visited Lloyd's in London, one of the school's board members was even “coaching the students on how to network when there's alcohol involved,” he said.

“At networking receptions, there is often alcohol,” Marlett said, adding that students learn the answer to this question: “'If you choose to drink, what is appropriate for the situation?' You don't get the one with the umbrellas or something complicated,” he said. “And have your one go-to grown-up drink. Instead of getting hard liquor every time, mix it up. Get a drink, and then have a couple of tonics or sodas. Nobody's going to know the difference.”

Managers acknowledged that students have impressed them during the hiring process when they've been asked about their soft-skills knowledge. “The students are well prepared academically but they also have experience attending industry events, have learned soft skills of how to interview, how to communicate effectively, etc.,” said Jeff Haney, president, ECM Solutions, an independent insurance agency in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Lisa A. Gardner Eastern Kentucky University

“We had this mindset that we were going to try our best to make the experience for our online students as rich as possible.”

Lisa A. Gardner
Eastern Kentucky University

Right Skills and Alumni Appeal

Both EKU and Appalachian State were buoyed by alumni support, garnering around 62% of their votes from graduates of the school, among the highest rates in the poll. That's compared to Olivet, which got about 50% support. Nearly all of the respondents—whether they were an alumnus or not—said their votes went to colleges that gave themselves, or the people they hired, the “right skills” to work and advance in the industry. Indeed, 77% of the survey respondents answered “yes” to the question, “Are graduates of college insurance and risk management programs coming in with the right skills to succeed?”

One EKU grad, Seth Brock, a State Farm Agency account representative in Kentucky, said the school works hard to develop relationships with people in the insurance industry and gives students the opportunity to get constructive internships and solid job experience. “EKU works as hard as any university in the country at providing students with the tools and opportunities to further their careers in the insurance world once they have graduated,” said Brock. “Internships, job fairs, fundraising events—EKU does it all.”

Even when those events were canceled because of COVID-19, colleges like Eastern Kentucky say they did their best to fill the gap in “real-world” learning.

EKU touted the fact that it already had an online degree, so the college was well prepared for the 18 months of shutdowns. Even before the pandemic, the school would find opportunities to meet students halfway if they found it difficult to physically attend class on the school campus, Gardner said. For example, a student “could be in Bermuda and enroll in our program and finish a bachelor's degree in RMI without ever leaving their home,” Gardner said.

The school's online classes in RMI involve recorded lectures, quizzes, problem sets and exams, all of which are supported by the Blackboard online learning platform, she said. During the worst of COVID, from late March through December 2020, classes were entirely online, taught either asynchronously or synchronously using Zoom. “In spring of 2021, most of our classes were taught this way, but I did teach one class face to face,” Gardner said.

Still, with students who clearly preferred face-to-face learning early in the pandemic, the COVID learning experience was different and difficult, Gardner acknowledged. But she believes the school met the challenge. “While we were with a group of students in Bermuda in March 2020, we learned that EKU was going fully online, and that we had just one additional week to prepare for that. It helped a lot to have access to our online classes as a model in thinking through in such a short time frame,” she said.

Some students had internship offers rescinded because of COVID. “To help those students advance professionally, the school decided to award professional designation scholarships that helped them afford professional designation study materials and exam fees,” she said.

Related: Industry Professionals Share Thoughts on Top RMI Programs

“We had some students take advantage of that and pass designation exams,” she said. “None of our spring 2020 grads had offers rescinded, but in some cases, their start dates were moved back.”

The school also went ahead with some approved events even before vaccines became available. Amid the pandemic, Gardner said EKU still sought to maintain some of the face-to-face learning experiences while maintaining COVID protocols.

In the fall of 2020, the school still held its Annual Scholarship Fundraiser and Golf Outing, and several students participated as volunteers. “This gave us a chance to do some of that informal mentoring and encourage them to meet industry professionals and talk to them,” she said. “Our students rose to the occasion. They seemed happy to be there and meeting people and enjoying the day.”

College Risk Management and Insurance Program Survey – 2022 Edition

The 20 schools that garnered the most votes in Best’s Review’s survey are listed below. More than 300 industry professionals participated in this year’s poll. A total of 48 schools received at least one vote.

College Total
Eastern Kentucky University 68
Appalachian State University 49
Olivet College 42
Florida State University 40
University of Wisconsin-Madison 25
California State University, Fullerton 22
University of Georgia 19
University of Alabama* 18
Temple University 15
St. John's University 9
University of North Carolina at Charlotte 7
Illinois State University 7
Baylor University 6
Indiana State University 6
Troy University 5
University of Cincinnati 5
East Carolina University 4
Georgia State University 4
Mississippi State University** 4
Saint Joseph's University 4

Honorable Mentions

The following schools received at least one mention in our survey of readers and industry professionals.

Ball State University
Butler University
Pennsylvania State University
University of South Carolina
Columbia University
University of Colorado Denver
Wisconsin School of Business
University of St. Thomas
Boston University
Drake University
Ferris State University
Furman University
Gallaudet University
Howard University
Michigan State University
Missouri State University
Murray State University
Ohio Dominican University
California State University, Sacramento
University of Connecticut
University of Florida
University of Illinois
University of Louisiana Monroe
University of Louisiana at Lafayette
University of Mississippi
University of Pennsylvania
University of Texas at Austin
Western University (Ontario, Canada)

*minor, **concentration
Sources: Best’s Review’s survey of top college risk management and insurance programs

Tom Davis is managing editor. He can be reached at

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