Change is all around at Columbia Business School — and it’s here to stay. 

One year after opening on the Manhattanville campus, the School’s pair of state-of-the-art buildings have received recognition as a physical reflection of CBS’s updated perspective, both on the value its programs deliver and the values they espouse. But it’s no surprise that the School’s striking upgrade reaches far deeper than the sparkle of steel and glass. Inside, CBS leaders and professors strive to continuously modernize the programs, including the distinguished finance curriculum. Today, what’s covered in the classroom is as fresh and impactful as the new architecture  — and similarly tied to the city in which the campus resides. 

“We were all extremely excited about the move [to the new buildings],” says Daniel Wolfenzon, the Nomura Professor of International Finance and coordinator of the core finance curriculum. The excitement and energy carried over to inspire a vigorous revamp of the programs, he explains.

Building on Excellence

The finance curriculum has long propelled students to become some of the best investment managers, bankers, and consultants in the world. In a virtuous cycle, CBS benefits from this extensive community of distinguished alums and their contacts — other successful practitioners at the forefront of their industries — who stay abreast of how markets, businesses, and society at large are evolving. They bring their expertise to campus as board members, adjunct professors, guest lecturers, and speakers. 

Together, their insights and input are integrated into the drive for continuous improvement. Every year, for example, the renowned CBS faculty refresh courses by updating case studies and real-world examples. Recent class discussions delved into the crisis in Britain’s bond market and Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter

Reaching beyond the typical annual refresh, this year's finance curriculum expanded into a more comprehensive revamp. The updates included an increased focus on analytics, expanded flexibility in the core curriculum, and a more integrated experience across the School’s disciplines. The changes were designed around a common goal: creating a curriculum that prepares and propels students to lead, innovate, and disrupt in an increasingly global, complex, technological, and data-centric world. 

Here’s a closer look at key improvements to the curriculum:

Leveraging Students’ Experience   

Today’s MBA candidates arrive at Columbia with increasingly diverse backgrounds and industry experience. Thus, one goal of the curriculum change was making it easier for students to place out of coursework they already know, while still ensuring they’re exposed to all the topics they need. 

Starting this year, the first semester’s core course in the finance curriculum was split into two six-week classes. The change makes it easier for students to get exempted from familiar material, providing more flexibility and time to take electives in areas like asset management and venture capital.

“Students are here only for two years,” says Wolfenzon. “Their time is very valuable. This allows them to only do what they really need.”

Making the Best Even Better

Adopting an approach that nothing is too good for improvement, even the wildly popular Capital Markets and Investments elective got an overhaul. The course is designed to “make students literate with regard to financing and all questions around finance,” explains Kent Daniel, the Jean-Marie Eveillard/First Eagle Investment Management Professor of Business. The syllabus covers how firms and individuals function within market-based systems. 

“The newest part of the course really gives students better intuition for what is going on in the world and why markets are moving the way they are moving,” says Daniel. In the fall semester, for example, Daniel delved into the reasons behind the Federal Reserve’s policy decisions and how the market has responded to high inflation and increased interest rates. Daniel adds that understanding markets and pricing “is always an art and science, with lots of wrinkles and different considerations,” particularly in today’s world. 

The Capital Markets course also tackles the latest issues and innovations in investment funds, including a new set of lectures exploring the trillions of dollars pouring into exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and the tax implications. Another hot topic: how to distinguish investing skill from the “rising tide” phenomenon of a bull market. Taking that analysis a step further, the class explores why and how much investors should be willing to pay fund managers when so many alternatives have no fees. 

The course includes visits from guest speakers, each talking in depth not only about the tools they use to understand markets, but also how they use them. As Daniel suggests, a tool is only as good as the craftsman wielding it.

 “A common misperception in quantitative fund management, for instance, is you turn on your computer and that runs the portfolio, but of course, that is not how it works at all,” says Daniel. “It involves a huge amount of creativity and constant reevaluation of your processes.” 

In class, visiting practitioners bring their investing craftsmanship to life. This fall, guest speakers included:

  • One of the foremost quantitative asset managers in the world, who discussed how he uses systematic quantitative approaches to run portfolios 
  • A CBS alumnus who founded and heads a global investment company explained the firm’s value investing toolbox and how it is used to develop their investment strategies 
  • Another CBS alumnus, who is the head of equity and quantitative strategy as well as ESG investing at a major American multinational investment banking division
  • The manager of Columbia University’s multibillion-dollar endowment

Other popular courses will be getting a refresh as well. With more students choosing private equity and venture capital career paths, faculty are poised to tune up more of those popular courses, including Foundations of Private Equity, Foundations of Venture Capital, Advanced Corporate Finance, and more advanced electives.

Digging Into Data

With reams of data available across almost every industry, business leaders are looking to harness all this information to shape smarter business decisions. The finance curriculum has been adapted to this new reality, ensuring students have the skills to use data to inform decision-making and solve problems.

“The biggest change in the toolbox is probably the emphasis on using data,” says Daniel. “The tools our students need are more quantitative than they’ve been historically. We have been ramping up our data analytics curriculum for the MBA students so they are better trained in using statistical analysis to make better business decisions.”

The focus is on giving students a strong set of tools to integrate quantitative data into traditional analysis, such as using data to build international diversification into a portfolio or conducting a deep value analysis of a firm using key quantitative inputs. But there’s also the flip side of knowing when not to trust the numbers.

“It is very easy to fool people with statistics,” says Daniel. “Our students have to be intelligent consumers of data. They need to be able to understand whether the conclusions reached by analysts are indeed supported by the data, whether other conclusions are also possible, and which conclusions make the most sense given the business situation.”

Prospective students with a particularly strong interest in data analytics have the option of applying for the Finance Division’s Master of Science in Finance Economics (MSFE), instead of the traditional MBA. Applications for this two-year program were up 20 percent over last year, evidence of data’s growing importance in the industry. 

Preparing for Real-World Complexity

In business, issues don’t arise in silos. Most often, leaders won’t face a purely finance, economic, or management problem. They must take a comprehensive view, with the knowledge and skills to navigate complex cross-functional challenges.

With this in mind, the new curriculum aims to better connect the core courses taken by all MBA students in their first year. Topics covered in one class now are interwoven with those in other courses that semester, says Wolfenzon. “It’s immensely valuable to make these connections. It’s a holistic experience as opposed to a course-by-course experience.” 

Ultimately, he concludes, “we prepare students for real-world finance.”