CHICAGO  - Vanessa Smith McTier knew she needed to focus more attention on promotional activities for her growing human resources consulting business. Her challenge was finding the extra time and resources when she was already stretched sourcing and delivering billable projects.

Rather than turn to another consulting firm, at the suggestion of a trusted friend McTier and her company, Chicago-based Vantage Solutions LLC, sought help from what is proving to be a growing and practical resource for small businesses around the country: qualified students at local business schools.

The biggest challenge for a small business owner is stepping back to get the macro view, said McTier, a human resources attorney whose full-service firm undertakes work ranging from litigation support to recruiting and the development of employee handbooks and training manuals. They did a really thorough and very thoughtful job.

Over the course of a semester, McTier worked with a graduate at the University of Illinois at Chicago's College of Business Administration to improve her firm's Web presence. Under the oversight of a faculty advisor, the student analyzed Vantage's website, identified shortcomings relative to rivals in the HR consulting space and delivered a report on recommended steps to make the firm's online experience more compelling.

Victoria Gheorghe, who runs the program out of the Illinois Small Business Development Center at UIC, said she has seen increased interest as the economic downturn has worn on. Last semester, the school selected 20 projects from 50 that were eligible, up from a pool of about 25 projects that qualified the previous year.

Gheorghe currently oversees teams of two to six students - both graduate and undergraduate - tasked with tackling projects spanning the small business consulting spectrum: new product development, strategic planning, finance, marketing and operations, to name a few. Each group is overseen by a faculty advisor.

It's experiential learning - it's not a book, it's not a case study, said Gheorghe, noting the diverse roster of business clients assisted by the program has included a recording studio, a construction firm, a security services firm and a retail handbag company. We oversee their work, so the companies feel comfortable.

The school promotes the program through local chambers of commerce, women's business development centers and related outreach groups. To qualify, small businesses in Illinois must demonstrate a track record of revenue growth and have at least three employees. They can apply online; if accepted, they pay nothing other than administrative fees for the students' services.


Similar programs appear to be gaining popularity across the country, as cash-sensitive small businesses look for money-saving alternatives and more startups enter the fray in the wake of corporate layoffs. Business schools, large and small, have expanded their push to get more students into the field before graduation.

I think there's a growing number of folks at the early stage in need of help; a lot of times they don't have the resources, said Mark Biddle, director of experiential learning at Babson College's F.W. Olin Graduate School of Business outside of Boston, Massachusetts. We're getting an increasing number of startups.

Babson, which offers experiential learning primarily to second-year MBAs, has even added specialized tracks such as a program focused on sustainability projects for enterprises involved in alternative energy like wind and solar power, in keeping with the growing green movement.

Each student typically logs about 10 hours a week toward their project, said Biddle, noting teams often draw from graduate students with extensive prior career training, including those with backgrounds in engineering and medicine. Some 60 percent of clients polled said the information delivered from student projects was instrumental in their business decision-making.

With students, you get a fresh perspective; they're passionate about it, they want to put these things on a resume, said Biddle. Clients have said that student reports were better than the professional reports they would pay for.

Some university programs have expanded beyond project-based interaction with companies. At Ohio University's College of Business in Athens, Ohio, for instance, MBA students can sign on to assist a select group of small businesses in the mainly rural and economically challenged Appalachian region. To date, the program has helped more than 700 businesses.

What we're doing here is basically creating a consulting organization, said Kevin Aspegren, who runs the program out of OU's Voinovich School for Leadership and Public Affairs. We work with existing small businesses that are hurting and those that are doing well but want to do better. We work with new entities that aren't even created yet.

Of course, there are some downsides for businesses working with students. Given most projects are undertaken over the course of semester, those requiring quick turnarounds work best for entrepreneurs. The same goes for assignments containing highly sensitive information.

But in many cases, the benefits of low- or no-cost labor and the high degree of students' enthusiasm can outweigh inconveniences. Back in Chicago, McTier said she was so impressed by the results from her first experience with UIC that she has again turned to the school for help with another project.

This time around, a team of nine undergraduates has been engaged to develop a social-media strategy for her consulting firm, which has grown to 12 full-time employees and 30 outside contractors.

The group is just amazing, the level of maturity, professionalism, thoroughness, (is) just like I would want any of my consultants to do for a clients, McTier said.