LONDON, England (CNN) -- According to business school tradition, the route to the top involves a mid-career hiatus to take an MBA before forging ahead into the boardroom. But there is another way -- the undergraduate path.
Straight out of school -- undergraduate courses are increasingly popular.
Undergraduate business programs were once the distinctly less glamorous cousins of MBAs, but a new survey shows how far they have progressed.
For one thing, the 2008 BusinessWeek rankings show that many of the same top MBA providers also educate the best business undergraduates.
This year's top 10 contains names familiar to anyone familiar with the top end of MBA league tables, among them the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton school, NYU's Stern and the Ross school at the University of Michigan.
Another pointer is the salaries now enjoyed by many new products of these undergraduate courses. At the top end, median starting salaries can top $60,000 a year -- and remember, these are people starting out in business, not MBAs with several years under their belt.
Graduates of the top 25 ranked schools were making an average of $54,445, BusinessWeek found, $3,000 more than last year.
The table is based on five different sets of data -- surveys of students and of recruiters, median salaries for graduates, the number of graduates who go on to top-ranked MBA programs, and a complex academic quality measure.
Wharton remained top, but according to the survey's authors it only just hung on to the number one spot amid tough competition from the University of Virginia's McIntire School of Commerce.
McIntire closed the gap with a combination of factors, including the highest ratings from its students of any of the 96 schools ranked, as well as a healthy 10 percent increase in average starting salaries to $58,000.
"We're very pleased that our students recognize the effort of our faculty and staff to create a great undergraduate experience for them," said McIntire's dean, Carl Zeithaml.
"Although it's great to be number two, and I wish we were number one, the important thing is that we are recognized for the efforts that everybody puts into creating a great program, and we remain among the elite schools."
Another distinctive factor of undergraduate programs identified by the BusinessWeek survey is their ability to specialize greatly, something often assisted by a school's geographical location.
For example, the University of Houston's Bauer College of Business might be a long way from the investment banks of Wall Street, but it is right at the heart of the oil trade, something its Global Energy Management Institute focuses on.
More esoteric still, Belmont University uses location in Nashville, the home of country music, to help students break into the recording and concert industry.
One of the most seemingly enjoyable programs in terms of the combination of activity and locale is based at Florida State University -- golf management.
Students learn about running courses and tournaments, keeping turf pristine and running catering outlets. The catch? You can't begin with a handicap of more than 12, and to graduate you need to shoot two consecutive rounds of 78 or less.
Business Week's top 10 undergraduate business schools for 2008:
1/ Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania
2/ McIntire School of Commerce, University of Virginia
3/ Mendoza College of Business, University of Notre Dame
4/ Cornell University
5/ Goizueta Business School, Emory University
6/ Ross School of Business, University of Michigan
7/ Marriott School, Brigham Young University
8/ Stern School of Business, New York University
9/ MIT Sloan School of Management
10/ McCombs School of Business, University of Texas E-mail to a friend