American higher education, particularly in the liberal arts, is currently on the edge of a precipice. Rising tuition costs have put pressure on schools to prepare their students for a financially successful future. Many students are turning to STEM and other vocational fields in hopes of better job prospects.
Another career path that’s increasingly popular, but less clear-cut, is entrepreneurship. According to the Kauffman Foundation’s 2008 report on this trend, entrepreneurship in higher education is growing fast, with formal programs quadrupling from 104 in 1975 to more than 500 in 2006. That number is continuing to rise and doesn’t even begin to touch on the increasing number of schools that offer courses in entrepreneurship or head their own entrepreneurship centers.
The Kauffman report highlights how entrepreneurship “naturally and authentically draws together subjects usually taught and studied separately.” That unifying force not only shows the depths of what entrepreneurship education can do, but also indicates a shift in how higher education must operate with regards to it.
This trend towards entrepreneurship can be powerful for universities. As Makaela Kingsley, director of the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Wesleyan University, notes, “entrepreneurship education is finally bridging the research-to-practice gap that has plagued liberal arts. It’s translational learning.” Wills Hapworth, the executive director at the Thought into Action Entrepreneurship Institute at Colgate University, reiterates this notion––calling entrepreneurship education “a perfect next step of the educational process.” “It’s symbiotic,” he explains, “they are a perfect fit. Learning how to think then learning how to apply.”
Though that doesn’t mean entrepreneurship education doesn’t face some pitfalls. Andy Zimbroff, Professor of Entrepreneurship at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, says that entrepreneurship education faces some difficulties as it spreads across the country: “Pretty much every school has a psychology department or languages department, and what they cover and how they cover it is pretty much the same. But entrepreneurship education is like the Wild West. It’s different everywhere.”
Part of what makes entrepreneurial education so variable is that it isn’t always the easiest or most comfortable fit for traditional institutions. And, as the demand for entrepreneurial education increases, colleges and universities face a crisis in regards to how to incorporate it.
Hapworth, who has spent several years in this field, believes that many colleges and universities have a long way to go to maximize the way they approach entrepreneurship on campus: “A lot of schools don’t know how to nurture these types of programs or realize how to actually treat them like a startup.” What many of them lack, he asserts, is an adequate, experiential component that can get students and aspiring entrepreneurs the knowledge and skills they need to build successful businesses both now and in the future.
He’s not alone in that belief. Both Zimbroff and Kingsley reiterate that effective entrepreneurship education has to have an experiential component to it. In their report, The Kauffman Foundation likewise places emphasis on hands-on experience and states “by its very nature, entrepreneurship in college cannot be limited to the classroom. Students interested in it and committed to it will want the opportunity to try it out—to actually do it.”
This process of learning by doing can be eye-opening, even game-changing for a lot of students. Hapworth, whose entrepreneurship initiative places a high premium on that experiential quality, believes that schools are starting to understand the importance of providing students the opportunity to learn through experience, but that there is a lot of work left to do. He claims, “a lot of schools focus on the study of entrepreneurship. And that’s all well and good, but there is really no replacement for rolling up your sleeves, getting out the door, and making stuff happen...not enough of the existing entrepreneurship education framework pushes kids to do that.”
There is hope, however. Students themselves are forming a ground swelling, grassroots movement, pushing their administrations towards entrepreneurship and starting clubs, initiatives, and programs on their own. Many of 3 Day Startup’s programs across the country are still spearheaded by students who want the opportunity to do more and go further with their ideas. Kingsley notes that a lot of the entrepreneurial advancement at Wesleyan is student driven, and the culture is “rapidly growing around the acknowledgement that entrepreneurship is something that students can actually do themselves.” Now that they’ve sparked this acceleration and interest, it must become the job of the university to support them—to, as Kingsley puts it, find the ideal student pathway and develop a “balance between incubating ventures and incubating people.”
However, many colleges and universities at the administrative level are still reluctant to invest in these programs––though Zimbroff notes that part of this reluctance may be natural and short-lived, since experiential entrepreneurship is “relatively new and difficult to measure.”
These attitudes are likely to change and at some universities, the shift has already begun. At Colgate, Hapworth’s initiative gets more applications from students every year; in Zimbroff’s research, he sees more literature on experiential entrepreneurship education, which he considers an indicator that it is growing and spreading across the country.
So the signs are good. The demand is there, and students are pushing harder than ever for the education they want. Increasingly, it is looking like experiential entrepreneurship education is the future for higher education, and, as the Kauffman report asserts, “higher education is basic to the future of American life.” We are moving towards that future, one led by students striving to innovate and develop as our next great problem solvers.
Ellyson Glance is the Brand Journalist at 3 Day Startup, a nonprofit organization that delivers intensive, hands on entrepreneurship programs to students at colleges and universities across the globe