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Getting Personal About Finance

North Carolina State's Bill Sloan uses his own professional experience to engage his finance students

BusinessWeek asked business undergrads to tell us about their favorite professors. Here's another installment in the series.

Not too many college-aged kids can say they have already created a personalized mutual fund 401(k) plan. But North Carolina State University finance professor Bill Sloan's students can. After developing a diversified portfolio from a menu of 12 to 13 investment choices and quantifying their risk tolerance, these personal finance students are prepared to deal with their retirement savings before they've even joined the workforce.

Preparing students for their future can pay off. North Carolina State undergrad business students who responded to BusinessWeek's 2007 survey, frequently named Sloan as their favorite professor. He has also received the Distinguished Undergraduate University Professor award at North Carolina State. Students say his real-world application of classroom material and depth of knowledge make him a star teacher.

He certainly has the right kind of experience. In addition to being a full-time professor, Sloan also operates his own personal finance firm, Sound Financial Market Inc., which he launched in 1998. Juggling two jobs is not always easy, but on the whole they tend to complement each other, he says.

Giving Students the Big Picture

Sloan, a North Carolina native, says he may have had no idea what he was getting into in 1983 when he agreed to teach a couple of courses at NCSU while he was an independent consultant. "I did it for a semester or two and I just fell in love with teaching," he says. "I loved the challenge of trying to teach material in a way that students can understand and the challenge to try and motivate students."

His style in the classroom involves motivating his students to think about the effect that personal finance plays in their lives. He asks them to ponder questions like "If you save $4,000 a year, what is that going to mean when you're 50 years old?"

In addition to teaching a lecture course on corporate finance, he also handles two smaller classes on introductory and advanced personal finance, which cover a range of concepts from investments to insurance to retirement planning.

Preaching the Virtues of a Diversified Portfolio

Relating Sloan's professional experience to classroom lessons grabs the attention of students. "I've dealt with people who have made some pretty egregious mistakes in terms of investing strategies and I can, without using names, relate those to students to tell them what doesn't work," he says. The most important piece of investing wisdom he imparts to his students is standard, yet can be easily forgotten: maintain a diversified portfolio consistent with risk policies regardless of the temptation to do otherwise. The tech bubble of the late Nineties says it all, he tells them.

Former student Kyle Niermeyer says he appreciated the discussion of real-world events. Unlike other classes that used class participation mostly as Q&A, Sloan really encouraged his students to discuss the material. Niermeyer says the chance to jump right into the action with projects like the mutual fund portfolio helped him find something he truly enjoyed. "All of my friends and I always looked forward to his class and regarded it as our favorite of all time."

In fact, Sloan's classes are so popular they are taped and broadcast on a local Time Warner (TWX) educational channel for distance learners of all ages. Pretty soon anyone will be able to buy the DVD set in the campus bookstore for complete schedule flexibility. These distance learners can either come to campus or have a proctor arrange for them to take exams, which are Sloan's primary way of evaluating students. "It's gaining a lot of traction," he says. "It's such a good thing for students working full-time, or maybe they've graduated and they want to learn a bit about personal finance."

Sloan makes himself accessible outside of the classroom. And he offers qualified students the opportunity to intern at his financial practice. "As students gain an understanding of how concepts are applied to the real world, they are much more prone to develop an appetite for the material," he says. And Sloan is willing to nurture them.

Sonal Rupani is an intern for BusinessWeek.

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