Entrepreneurship, the New Requirement in Higher Education

by Katy Tynan, co-founder of and partner at MindBridge Partners

Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, and Larry Ellison all have something in common. They are college dropouts. Some of the most famous and successful entrepreneurs in history left the path of formal education to pursue their startup dreams, and most never returned. They are fascinating stories, and they inspire thousands of talented students to consider ditching education to become startup founders every year. But while a small number of success stories make the headlines, far fewer of those new companies become as successful as Facebook, Apple, Dell, and Oracle.

In the last five years, there has been an explosion of entrepreneurship programs across a wide variety of subject areas in higher education. Between 1985 and 2008, the number of entrepreneurship courses in U.S. colleges and universities increased from 250 to over 5,000, and that number has continued to grow. Today, it’s estimated that nearly half a million students are taking courses in entrepreneurship across the country. Colleges are making a concerted effort to convince these budding business owners that rather than dropping out they should stay in school and launch their ventures from inside the supportive ecosystem of their alma mater.

While schools agree that losing their best and brightest to the startup economy is a problem, they are taking different approaches to solving the problem. For some schools, the answer lies in direct investment into startups by students. In 2009, Stanford students launched StartX, a nonprofit accelerator program for students and alumni. In 2013, the University began directly investing in StartX and in the companies it launched.

For other schools, entrepreneurship has been integrated into the curriculum. MIT incorporates business plan challenges, pitch days, mentorship, and other elements of the startup process into its Entrepreneurship and Innovation track during the MBA program.

And beyond supporting student entrepreneurs, universities have been getting more disciplined about turning their own research into potential companies through their Technology Transfer Office (TTO). Universities, scientific research centers, and even government entities are developing partnerships with entrepreneurs and incubators to develop a faster, more structured path to bring ideas to market.

What’s driving these trends in entrepreneurship and innovation in higher education? There are three main forces which are behind the surge in startup support at the post-secondary level.

The Driving Forces Behind Post-Secondary Entrepreneurship Programs

1. Retention—As students are being lured by the promise of success by dropping out, colleges and universities are working hard to show another side of the story – that there is value in staying in and launching a startup with the support of professors, mentors, and an innovation ecosystem. Schools are putting a premium on retention of students, both for their own revenue and because accrediting bodies are increasingly concerned about the number of students who are failing to complete their college degrees.

2. Presidential Administration Initiatives—The Obama administration has placed a strong focus on innovation and entrepreneurship in education. In 2013 the US Department of Commerce unveiled a report showcasing the increasing focus on entrepreneurship in higher education. “The Obama administration is committed to fostering innovation and supporting entrepreneurs, both of which are key drivers of U.S. economic growth,” said U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker. These initiatives, started in 2008, are now being reflected in the growth of entrepreneurship programs nationwide.

3. Revenue—As schools continue to battle for enrollments, and to differentiate themselves from their competitors, many schools have seen entrepreneurship as a key tool in attracting and retaining students. They have also seen opportunities to create new revenue streams through licensing the intellectual property of researchers and scientists.

Given the tremendous growth in the number of schools offering entrepreneurship courses, incubators, accelerators, and other vehicles to promote innovation by students and throughout the organization, it’s no surprise that more student startups are taking their ideas to market. It’s too early to tell whether these initiatives will be successful in retaining students who might otherwise drop out, but it’s clear that entrepreneurship is the new core competency in higher education.

Katy Tynan

Katy Tynan

Katy is an author, entrepreneur and consultant working at the intersection of people and technology. She is a thought leader in the conversation about how work is changing, and has been advising businesses and educational institutions on how to leverage technology for operational efficiency, growth, and strategic advantage for over 20 years.