Extra Credit

Gaining Status

In general, the popularity of entrepreneurship continues unabated in higher education. "It's growing rapidly on a long-term trend," says Shane. "If anything, the trend of entrepreneurship education is stronger than business in general. We're seeing declining enrollment in MBA programs but increasing enrollment in graduate entrepreneurship programs."

One reason for rising enrollment in entrepreneurship programs is the growing number of college students, thanks to a baby boomlet now washing through higher education. Another reason is the changing perception of traditional employment as a source of security. "The social contract with large companies has broken down," says Shane. "People view starting their own companies as less risky than employment."

Today's students represent another shift, away from those who flocked to e-commerce programs and other flash-in-the-pan features of premillennial business education. "A few years ago, I was getting very disturbed because, when students thought about entrepreneurship, they thought it meant a quick investment and a lot of money," says Don Kuratko, professor of entrepreneurship at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. "We're starting to see students learn how to really be entrepreneurs, how to bootstrap, how to manage, how to be committed to creating something with value."

Entrepreneurship education is also changing. Today's courses are more likely to be taught by a professional academic with a doctorate and an orientation toward research than an adjunct professor with a resume as a successful entrepreneur. This is leading to the development of a basic framework for teaching entrepreneurship, says Michael H. Morris, a professor of entrepreneurship at Syracuse University. "There aren't standard curriculum models in entrepreneurship," he says. "But they're emerging." Those models typically include a course on writing business plans, providing consulting to small businesses, studying entrepreneurial finance, and managing innovation as main elements.

One of the solid trends in entrepreneurship education is toward experiential learning. Competitions for the best business plan or elevator pitch, opportunities to consult to real-world small businesses, simulations, incubators, on-campus venture funds and other approaches provide students with learning experiences that many educators deem more effective than the conventional textbook approach. "We're seeing more students getting out of the classroom and into the practice field," confirms Kuratko. "There's a move away from classroom teaching to the field approach."

Change is also taking place in the research programs related to these entrepreneurship programs. A keystone research project, the Panel Study of Entrepreneurial Dynamics, began in 1996 and involved contacting more than 64,000 U.S. households in the search for nascent entrepreneurs. The researchers wound up with 830 people who were willing to let their business startups be studied for two years. The study seeks to answer four fundamental questions, including: 1)Who is starting businesses? 2)How do they go about it? 3)Which efforts are most likely to produce new firms? 4)Why do some startups create high-growth firms? Specific topics covered were strategies, opportunity evaluation, networks, financial characteristics, management teams and more.

"It's the largest random sample of people who are getting into business," says Gartner. "You name it, it's all there. It's the mother lode of information about entrepreneurial processes, and we've just begun to analyze it." Results are starting to be published in academic journals, and Gartner believes the findings will overturn many myths about new-venture creation and revolutionize the way entrepreneurship is taught. "For instance, it will challenge our thinking of the importance of venture capital," says Gartner. "If we're teaching in general about how to finance companies, the VC mode is probably not relevant."

Up to the Challenge
Kate Spisak didn't start out to major in entrepreneurship. The 22-year-old senior at Ball State University, in Muncie, Indiana, began as a business major and got interested in entrepreneurship because of the promise of challenge and independence. "I was unsure what direction I wanted to go," says Spisak, "but I couldn't see myself sitting at a day-to-day job doing the same thing over and over."

Part of the challenge of the entrepreneurship program for Spisak is the final senior project to write a business plan. "We draw it up, create it, and go through management, marketing and finding the financing," she says. "At the end of the semester, we present it to a board of business professionals [who] judge how well we put together and presented our plan. We find out right then whether we graduate. It's pass/fail; if you don't pass the business plan class, you don't graduate."

Spisak plans to graduate on schedule, after which she's not sure. "But that's the beauty of entrepreneurship," she says.

"The doors are open. I can be qualified to work in any kind of business. It's a jack-of-all-trades major, because you learn about every department and you learn how to speak entrepreneurially."

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This article was originally published in the May 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Extra Credit.

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