Entrepreneurship Education Is Hot. Too Many Get It Wrong

Photograph by Kevin Galvin

In 1985, about 250 college courses taught entrepreneurship, according to a paper published (PDF) this month by the Kauffman Foundation. In 2008, 5,000 such courses were on offer at two- and four-year institutions in the U.S. Today, nearly 400,000 students take college classes on entrepreneurship each year.

Despite that growth, or perhaps because of it, there’s a budding crisis in entrepreneurship education, says Bill Aulet, managing director at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. Too many courses take a storytelling approach, in which a successful entrepreneur tells students their secrets of success—“clapping for credit,” Aulet calls it. When the semester ends and students try to launch businesses, they don’t know where to start. Other courses focus on one idea—blue ocean strategy, say, or the lean startup model—to the exclusion of others.

In pursuit of a better method, Aulet just published a book, Disciplined Entrepreneurship, which proposes “24 steps to a successful startup” and aims to compile lessons from different theories of entrepreneurship. At a roundtable discussion held on Thursday to promote the book, Aulet warned of the consequences of failing to meet the demand for entrepreneurship education with effective teaching. “If we don’t come up with a rigorous way to teach entrepreneurship … there’s going to be a backlash,” he said. Young people with entrepreneurial dreams will be alienated from the field, and big societal problems will go unsolved.

So what should such a curriculum look like? Aulet’s book suggests it should teach students a diverse set of skills through hands-on experiences. The panel discussion, which included startup founders, educators, and venture capitalists, was focused less on the “how” of entrepreneurship education, and more on the “where.”

An MBA provides a socially acceptable way to spend two years experimenting, panel-members agreed, though they thought would-be entrepreneurs with more guts should spend the time and money launching a business. RRE Ventures’ Steve Schlafman said he sometimes worries that business school grads won’t have the rule-breaking instinct common to many innovators.

What about the Thiel Fellowship, which encourages students to ditch college and go to work on their own projects? It shows that colleges need to do a better job of training entrepreneurs, said Aulet, who sees a conflict when a venture capitalist such as Peter Thiel, who funds the fellowship, gets involved in educating future startup founders.

“We can’t leave the training of entrepreneurs to the private sector,” he says. “I think there’s this whole honest broker thing that’s incredibly important. People will absolutely sell their soul to find the next Mark Zuckerberg. My job partly at MIT is to set up a firewall to keep those people away so that these young people have the chance to learn.”

The idea that training young entrepreneurs should be separated from the valuation-obsessed world of venture capital strikes a chord in Kauffman’s new paper, “Entrepreneurship Education Comes of Age on Campus.” It finds educators and administrators worrying that if entrepreneurship is defined as relating primarily to high-tech, fast-growth companies, the discipline’s appeal will be limited—shutting out students who don’t identify as entrepreneurs.

“Educators worry that the discipline already may have narrowed its mission and brand more than is truly necessary or desirable,” wrote the Kauffman authors. “By alienating students who identify as, say musicians or designers, rather than as entrepreneurs; by pushing students toward competitions and ventures prematurely or inappropriately; by defining success in the framework of startups and venture capital, rather than in the framework of life enhancement.”