The stereotype of the entrepreneur includes pulling yourself up by your bootlaces, without any special training or education. But more and more schools are offering degrees in entrepreneurship to undergraduate and graduate students. Universities like Stanford and MIT offer programs promising to prepare entrepreneurs for all the questions they'll face in founding a business.
But what's the real value of a degree in entrepreneurship?
Is Any Degree Necessary?
When you found a new business, no one comes to check if you have the proper credentials to operate a company. Plenty of entrepreneurs have grown companies with no college degrees whatsoever, let alone degrees in entrepreneurship.
My grandfather falls into this category. (He likes to say he has a degree in the School of Hard Knocks.) He just barely completed the eighth grade, but he's built several businesses, including a real-estate development company. My grandfather is in good company with well-known entrepreneurs without degrees, like Bill Gates.
In truth, if you're committed to your business idea and you're willing to work every hour in the day, you don't need a degree to launch a successful company. A degree just makes certain aspects of starting in business easier. Being in a college environment provides you with easy access to a lot of information, as well as to experts in a variety of fields.
The Actual Value of Your Degree
An undergraduate degree is a fairly in-depth introduction to your topic of study. When you graduate, you aren't an expert in your field -- but you probably have a pretty good idea of who the experts in your field are, and what you can read to try to catch up with them. You can handle the nuts-and-bolts work without any problem, and you may even have a good idea of where to go next to get even more information you need. Depending on the program you choose, you might even complete a project or two that are directly related to the company you want to start.
At most universities, there's a lot of theory involved in getting a degree, but not necessarily a lot of practice. Once you have your degree, taking it out and using it in the real world can be a little more complex than a student might expect.
But having degree means you're not starting from scratch, trying to figure out how to choose what to read on your chosen subject. Because you have experts -- professors -- guiding your learning, you can skip over a lot of irrelevant material.
And at most colleges, you even have access to experts outside the business school. If you need help with other aspects of launching your business, you can likely get it.
With an entrepreneurship degree, you don't just get exposure to one part of running a company, as you would with a management or a human resources degree. Instead, at least in theory, you get information that pertains directly to starting your business, as well as a grounding in all those topics necessary to keep your business going.
In Stanford's graduate program, you can take classes like Social Entrepreneurship and Building and Managing an Effective Sales Team. It's information you'll have to figure out how to put into practice, but such courses could leapfrog you ahead of those trying to learn it on their own.
Deciding If You Need a Degree in Entrepreneurship
Whether you need a degree in entrepreneurship can be a tough call. Who wants to put down money for a college degree when they're about to start a new venture that needs cash? And who wants to spend time studying when they could be out starting a business? But learning about entrepreneurship and how to run a business before you actually try it yourself can minimize risks or damage from a trial-and-error approach.
A degree is more likely to be useful if you know you want to run your own business but don't know where to start or what that business will look like. Many entrepreneurs have a great idea for a product or a service but don't come from a business background. It's possible to learn everything about business, but in those situations, the structure of a degree can be very worthwhile.
Still, a lot of entrepreneurs go into business in areas they're already familiar with and already have a lot of passion for. An entrepreneur might already have some background in running a business, even if that background comes from working for an employer. If you already know the ins and outs of your industry and you're comfortable figuring out details like funding a company, it's harder for you to justify the cost of an entrepreneurship degree.
And not all entrepreneurship degrees are created equal. It takes some hunting to find the good ones -- simply running the phrase through a search engine only gets you links to online schools that might not offer degrees that improve your odds of business success. It's better to dive into learning about business on your own than to waste your time on classes that won't get you where you want to go.
Thursday Bram is a senior writer at Wise Bread, a leading personal-finance community dedicated to helping people get the most out of their money. Get daily money tips by following Wise Bread on Facebook or Twitter.