Could Entrepreneurship Programs Someday Replace Their Colleges?

Opinion | Entrepreneurship

Could Entrepreneurship Programs Someday Replace Their Colleges?

By Gary A. Bolles     Feb 4, 2019

Could Entrepreneurship Programs Someday Replace Their Colleges?
Student participating in a LaunchU entrepreneurship program at Oberlin College

If I gave you a magic wand, and said you could redesign a college from scratch, what must your students learn?

I argue that you need to help build problem-solvers who are adaptive, creative and entrepreneurial in their thinking.

It turns out you can find programs on today’s campuses that already teach these things: entrepreneurship programs. I believe such programs not only the future of teaching the kind of agency that everyone will need, they may hold some of the keys to the future of higher education itself.

Where did this insight come from? I recently spent an afternoon at the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center, in San Francisco, in a program co-chaired by Lehigh University, meeting with leaders of entrepreneur programs from around the world, many of them based at colleges. Attendees included representatives from Hong Kong, India, Canada, Germany and the U.S.

The guided discussion eventually turned to the daunting challenges so many colleges face in trying to adapt to a rapidly-changing world. Tuition is skyrocketing. Tenure is a tax on innovation, protecting Sanskrit professors so they can teach from the $153 book they wrote 40 years ago. (That’s the national average per course for textbooks.) Alumni want a campus to look exactly like it did when they graduated (except for the shiny new football stadium they just funded). Accrediting agencies want concrete poured on curriculum for one or two years before it can be changed. State colleges are often compensated based simply on attendance, giving no incentive for outcomes.

Given all these frictions, how can higher education institutions possibly adapt?

As Clay Christensen says in “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” successful organizations can’t get out of their own way exactly because they have a model that has worked for them in the past. Because sustainable innovation rarely happens at the core of the organization, as my friend John Hagel at Deloitte says, you must begin by innovating at the edge. That means an initiative that’s not tied to the organization’s traditional business model, encouraging entrepreneurial thinkers to come up with radical new approaches, potentially scaling the new model to the point where it can dramatically influence the current organization—or even subsume it.

That’s where many college-based entrepreneurship programs live. On the edge. Many such programs aren’t taken for college credit, so they aren’t tied to accreditation practices. They often don’t use traditional faculty, so tenure isn’t a problem. And they often leverage practitioners with deep industry experience, ensuring the relevance of what they teach.

We can prefer that entering college students have the space to explore a range of options, giving them the chance to grow their minds, explore, and develop critical thinking for four years, without necessarily having to worry about how that connects to their future work.

These are all worthy goals—if you can afford them. Yet how many middle-class families can pay $200,000 for a four-year liberal arts degree? (That’s the average of the top liberal arts colleges today, without living costs.) It’s one of the reasons we’re approaching a $1.5-trillion overhang in student debt.

It’s also one of the reasons that an increasing number of colleges face existential risk. In 2017, about quarter of place-based, private non-profit colleges in the U.S. ran at a deficit. For many schools, the current college business model just isn’t sustainable. After all, what other business treats you for four years as a customer, and for the rest of your life as a cash register?

Let’s face it. Colleges will increasingly need to connect what they teach to the student’s subsequent opportunities. Those weren’t necessarily the rules 10 years ago, but it’s what schools will increasingly be held responsible for in the future.

Entrepreneurial Thinking

That’s why entrepreneur programs may represent at least part of the future of higher ed. Because they often use adjunct faculty and are highly goal-oriented, entrepreneur programs are comparatively inexpensive and extremely focused. And because their ultimate goal is to increase the agency of students, they’re helping young people optimize themselves for their future work.

What colleges don’t need to do is to create entrepreneur programs obsessed with launching the next Facebook. (And not just because things aren’t going so well for the first one.) Sure, entrepreneur programs at universities like Stanford are often designed to create venture-backed startups. But many other programs are far more modest in their goals. For example, I’ve lectured at Oberlin College, where my son recently graduated, for their LaunchU entrepreneur program, which aims to teach liberal arts students how to engage in a societal problem.

Entrepreneurial thinking also doesn’t mean that every student walking in the door should immediately focus on starting a business, or even signing up for the for-profit model. Look at Sama School. One of its programs helps disadvantaged workers learn how to thrive using gig work to lift themselves out of poverty. Or take Ashoka University, which typically trains entrepreneurs to join or start a non-profit to focus on a specific problem of civil society.

I’ll admit I’ve long been sold on this approach. I’m a former co-founder of SoCap, the conference for social entrepreneurs and investors, and I do projects with entrepreneur-focused groups like Kauffman Foundation and Singularity University Ventures.

I think of every single worker as needing an entrepreneurial mindset, whether or not they start a business. That means corner store owner should have one. So should the consultant. And the craftsperson selling their wares on Etsy. Even music students: Aside from the infinitesimal possibility of becoming a successful instrumentalist with a major orchestra, just about any other work they do will require an entrepreneurial mindset.

Finally, for the vast majority of young people who will choose traditional work at some point in their careers, entrepreneurism teaches them to own a problem. That’s guaranteed to help develop some of the best possible future employees.

Look, we want all people, young and older, to have the training, resources and access to either find or create meaningful, well-paid work. To become great partners and parents. To become contributing members of their communities, their economies and their societies. To be happy and, by their own measure, successful.

Let’s all act like entrepreneurs, and own that problem. Let’s give every student the preparation they need so they can help to solve the problems of the future.

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