Does Entrepreneurship Education Still Matter?

With so many incubators proliferating, is it even worth going to business school anymore?
November 02, 2012

When I began writing about entrepreneurship over 30 years ago, “entrepreneurship education” was an almost unheard-of concept. Today, entrepreneurship education at the nation’s colleges and universities is booming. In its latest annual ranking of the top entrepreneurial education programs, The Princeton Review sorted through some 2,000 graduate and undergraduate offerings.

Both the general public and would-be entrepreneurs strongly believe in the importance of entrepreneurship and the power of entrepreneurial education. In a study last year by Buzz Marketing and The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), 89 percent of respondents thought entrepreneurial education was crucial given the state of the economy and job market. And in a report from Junior Achievement Innovation Initiative and Gallup, 95 percent of employers and 96 percent of employees believe America's workforce must become more entrepreneurial for the U.S. to stay competitive. Just 10 percent feel entrepreneurial ability was an innate trait.

Which Path to Follow

But there are also doubts about entrepreneurship education’s effectiveness. A boom in trendy startup accelerator and bootcamp programs is making old-fashioned entrepreneurial educations seem obsolete. PayPal founder Peter Thiel declared as much when he launched his Thiel Fellowshipprogram, which gives 20 fellows $100,000 each to skip college and start a business instead.

“While I’m thrilled to see more colleges [adding] entrepreneurship programs, I also see a lot of failing programs,” says YEC founder Scott Gerber, citing a recent YEC survey in which nearly 70 percent of those who had taken an entrepreneurship education course in college found it highly ineffective.

So should would-be entrepreneurs use their college funds to launch a startup? Not so fast. Experts and graduates alike agree that a good entrepreneurial education can provide:

  • Financial skills. “Far too many people go through K-12 and on to college without understanding basic financial statements or cash flow,” says Gerber.
  • Reality check. “So many people start companies without having been educated about what is involved,” says Ethne Swartz, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Silberman College of Business. “We ground students in the fundamentals of finance and how business plans are created. Then we encourage them to work in [small businesses] or finance so they see how funding decisions are made.”
  • Decision-making skills. Swartz says a good entrepreneurship education teaches thinking skills that can help you succeed whether you start your business with a clear goal in mind (like Zappos founder Tony Hsieh) or grow more organically (like Facebook). “Most young people don’t have powerful social networks or access to capital,” Swartz explains, “so teaching them entrepreneurial ways of thinking provides a framework.”
  • Comfort with risk. “Instructional education goes only so far,” says Gerber. “You [also] have to put people in the field, starting businesses in college so they can fail in a setting that’s more comfortable and protected than the real world.” At Fairleigh Dickinson, for example, students compete for funding, then start companies.
  • Feedback and advice. “My classes gave me an opportunity to refine [my] concept with the help of friends and teachers,” says Karen Jashinsky, who founded O2 MAX , a fitness company that combines online tools, social media and real world fitness to revolutionize fitness for busy people, after graduating from the University of Southern California’s entrepreneurship program. “My professors were always available to offer insight--even years after I graduated.”
  • Connections and moral support. “So much of what you learn is not just from books but from people,” says Jashinsky. “A college environment gives you the opportunity to meet other like-minded individuals and develop a large network. Being an entrepreneur can be very lonely at times. The bigger your support system, the easier it will be to get through the tough times.”

 What to Look for

Of course, not all entrepreneurship programs are equal. For those considering a program, ask what campus-based resources are available, such as mentoring opportunities, accelerators or incubators, and access to financing. “How active are the clubs on campus? Are there business plan competitions? Events you get access to?” says Jashinsky. “Are the teachers themselves experienced entrepreneurs?”

Off-campus resources matter as well. “Using [top-ranked] Babson as an example, getting stakeholders from various local communities to bring real-world experience into the classroom and supplement the core curriculum is crucial,” says Gerber. Does the surrounding community have active angel groups or venture capitalists, lawyers and accountants familiar with entrepreneurial businesses, and a business-friendly state and local government?

If you could do it all over again, would you major in entrepreneurship? 

Photo: Thinkstock