Actuarial Mathematics program offers rewards when it comes to risk

April 20, 2022

Students in UM-Dearborn’s Actuarial Mathematics program, which began in 2019, find success in passing rigorous industry exams and landing actuary internship opportunities.

Photos of Actuarial Mathematics students looking for solutions
Graphic by Violet Dashi and photos by Mike Dabkowski

An actuary is a business professional who deals with the measurement and management of risk and uncertainty. What isn’t risky? Majoring in Actuarial Mathematics at UM-Dearborn.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, median pay for actuaries is nearly $110,000 per year, and employment of actuaries is projected to grow 24 percent by the end of the decade, much faster than the average for all occupations.

And students in the UM-Dearborn Actuarial Mathematics program — a newer campus major that has a core curriculum of mathematics, statistics, economics and finance courses — say their professors are among the best they’ve ever had. They are energetic and inspiring, help students prepare for industry certification tests, connect them with work opportunities and more.

So what does an actuary do? A variety of things, said Associate Professor Mahesh Agarwal, who advises students in the Actuarial Mathematics program. For example, they are the people who are behind the scenes when it comes to products or services we interact with every day like our cars, homes and more.

“Actuaries analyze the financial cost of risk and uncertainty. They work with companies to help predict risk to minimize costs. For instance, behind every insurance quote you see, there is an actuary who has analyzed the likelihood and cost of an accident,” he said. “Their work to help predict risk is rooted in ensuring financial well being for businesses and people.”​​​​​​

Photo of Associate Professor Mahesh Agarwal
Associate Professor Mahesh Agarwal

UM-Dearborn junior Blake Hanson said the core duo running the program, Agarwal and Assistant Professor Mike Dabkowski, not only teach — they also get people excited about the topic.

“I don’t think there is anything about math that those guys don’t know,” Hanson said. “Professor Dabkowski is so into math that you want to learn it and you’ll get pumped up too — he might be the most enthusiastic person that I’ve ever met. And Professor Agarwal is so patient and intuitive. He can tell just by looking at me if I have a question and he’ll sit with me until I figure it out. They are two of the best teachers I’ve ever had. If you like math now, you’ll end up loving it.”

In addition to classroom lessons, Hanson said campus professors help students fulfill the Society of Actuaries course requirements and prepare them for passing the seated exams needed for the professional actuary designation.

Noted for being among the hardest professional exams to pass, the preparation is working: Nearly all of the Actuarial Mathematics majors who recently took an exam passed it. And some on the first try — which even the Wall Street Journal says is quite a feat.

Junior Autumn Tashman is among the first from UM-Dearborn to sign up for the major and take the exams. She passed both the first exam (Probability) and the second one (Financial Mathematics) on the first try.

With the two exams behind her, she recently accepted an internship at Ally Financial in Detroit.

Photo of CASL student Autumn Tashman
Junior Autumn Tashman works on a mathematics problem in CASL's Math Resource Room.

“I’m going to get to work downtown, right in front of Campus Martius. I’m really excited about working there, learning from people in the industry, and seeing where this internship takes me,” said Tashman, who connected with Ally Financial through the virtual U-M Actuarial Career Expo.

Among people taking at least one exam from the Society of Actuaries — the field’s biggest U.S. credentialing body — only 15% pass the multiple tests required to become an associate, a designation allowing them to practice.

Photo of CASL student Sarah McCann
Junior Sarah McCann works on mathematical formulas.

Junior Sarah McCann, who works part time at Coldwell Banker, passed the first exam. Senior Ovy Apintei, who worked as a financial specialist at PNC Bank, is studying for the first exam. And Hanson passed his two exams and recently accepted an actuarial internship at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

Photo of Ovy Apintei at the Honors Scholar ceremony
Senior Ovy Apintei

“I couldn't even give you an exact number on the added time my professors spent with me preparing for the exams,” Hanson said. “I spent four to five hours each day, every day, focused on exam materials and my professors were there every step of the way. You could email them any time of the day with a problem and they’d always answer with enthusiasm and support.” For students who take the exams and pass, UM-Dearborn has a scholarship that reimburses the students for the testing fees. There are seven tests in all, but typically exams three through seven are taken by working professionals. 

Hanson said he’s especially impressed with how his professors are keeping current on the exams and continue to take the rigorous tests so they can advise their students how to best prepare.

“Those exams are hard. Harder than I could have even imagined,” Hanson said. “Our professors have set tenure-track careers, but they are still putting themselves through those exams and learning what changes are happening in the field and how those changes impact the exams so they can help us study. When you see someone going above and beyond for you like that, it inspires you to work even harder.”

To help students prepare, courses in the major are specifically tailored to exam information, there are practice problems with recorded solutions on Canvas, and the Mathematics and Statistics faculty host recurring study sessions.

Photo of CASL student Blake Hanson
Junior Blake Hanson takes time to review his math work.

“To help me understand the concepts, Professor Dabkowski and Professor Agarwal began twice weekly study sessions with me six months prior to taking the first exam,” Tashman said. “They even reached out to me right before the exam to help me calm down — I was so stressed — and I think that helped me have better focus. The professors I’ve had here are the best and I credit them for where I am today.”

Tashman said she’s learned a lot from her time at UM-Dearborn, which includes how it’s ok to change career plans. She said incoming students, herself included, put pressure on themselves to know their major right away. Tashman, who originally thought about a career in accounting, suggests trying to remove that pressure and focus on exploring subjects you find interesting.

“UM-Dearborn has a lot of majors. There’s no way to know them all when you first come to campus. Take classes you think sound interesting.Talk to your professors and advisers. It will come together,” she said. “If you are still exploring what you’d like to do, I suggest looking at the Actuarial Math program if you like math. A lot of people don’t know what actuarial math is when they first get to college — I didn’t — but it gives you different tools to answer risk questions businesses or people have.”

Tashman said knew she liked calculus in high school, but wasn’t sure what to do with her math interest when she first got to UM-Dearborn until she heard about the Actuarial Mathematics program, which was launched in 2019.

Photo of Assistant Professor Mike Dabkowski
Assistant Professor Mike Dabkowski

She liked how the field could help her understand how to apply math to making educated professional and personal decisions, like understanding insurance premiums, mortgage interest rates, hedge funds, warranty costs and more. “What I’m learning integrates math into our every day,” she said, noting that her parents recently built a house and shortened their mortgage to 10 years to save money on interest — which is figured out by using an actuarial math formula. “What I’m learning now is good to know so I can make the right financial decisions for myself later on too.”

As the three-year-old major grows,  Dabkowski and Agarwal continue to focus on ways they can support students in the program. For example, they are looking to connect with industry partners in finance, real estate, health insurance, data science and more to help students gain experience and exposure.

“We’re here to open doors for students so they can realize their potential and learn what’s out there for them. That doesn’t stop at the end of a class,” Dabkowski said. “The students we have at UM-Dearborn are talented, hardworking and dedicated to mastering this material.” 

The Dearborn Wolverines agree. And the more they get into the program, the more confident they become.

“You study with your classmates, who become your friends, and you work through the hard stuff together. You know you can reach out to your professors at any time and they’ll respond. You are encouraged and prepared to get the credentials you need to land a job,” Hanson said. “I like where I am at. But it’s not just because I like math. It’s also because of the people.”

Interested in learning more about the Actuarial Mathematics program? Reach out to Professor Agarwal or Professor Dabkowski. Article by Sarah Tuxbury.