Can Entrepreneurship Be Taught?

You bet it can--and in our 1st Annual Top 100 Entrepreneurial Colleges and Universities, we reveal which U.S. schools do it best.
Magazine Contributor
10 min read

This story appears in the April 2003 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

In 1970, a national survey of business schools found just 16 courses offered in entrepreneurship. Since then, entrepreneurial education has taken off like the Internet craze. Karl Vesper, University of Washington management professor and entrepreneurship expert, did the groundbreaking 1970 study that, when repeated in 1997, uncovered more than 400 schools offering at least one course in entrepreneurship, and more than 50 schools with four or more courses.

"Money, mostly" is the reason so many schools have added entrepreneurship to their offerings, says Vesper, who explains that colleges want to tap into donations from wealthy alumni. But the visibility of entrepreneurs in business in the past three decades has also played a role. As headlines blared about the innovation and personal wealth that went hand-in-hand with entrepreneurs and start-up ventures, especially in the technology sector, the public became increasingly fascinated with start-up businesses and the risk-taking mind-set that defines the entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurial education arguably started at Harvard University in 1947 with a single course. In the mid-1980s, entrepreneurship came into its own, and programs sprang up offering entrepreneurship tracks and even majors for MBA and undergraduate students. By the turn of the millennium, students could major or minor in entrepreneurship--even get a doctorate and join the professors researching and teaching entrepreneurial management and finance. Along with entrepreneurial degree programs, schools hold student business plan competitions, sponsor research centers and host venture capital forums. Today, more than three dozen academic research journals are dedicated to topics ranging from family businesses, franchising and women entrepreneurs to corporate venturing, incubators and inner-city business development.

Top 100 Colleges
To view the top 100 entrepreneurial colleges, plus listings of nearly 200 Entrepreneurship Emphasis and 75 Limited Curriculum programs, go here.

The business students who filled the multiplying classrooms weren't all planning to start businesses of their own. Some just wanted to pad their resumes with courses that would convince potential employers they possess the entrepreneurial mind-set. But many, like Iraklis Grous, a 19-year-old sophomore at Babson College in Babson Park, Massachusetts, specifically wanted to learn how to become entrepreneurs.

Grous chose Babson College in particular because of a required freshman course giving a team of 30 students $3,000 to start a business. His team's venture, an inflatable-furniture marketing business called AirChairs, generated $1,000 in profits and confirmed Grous' desire to be an entrepreneur. The instruction and environment at Babson "definitely" has whetted his entrepreneurial instincts and understanding, Grous says. In fact, he's already incorporated his first start-up, an adventure travel agency called Sirius Trekking, which he hopes will begin operations this summer. After graduation in 2005, he says, "if the profits from Sirius go well, I'd love to start another company."

Despite the enthusiasm of students like Grous, skeptics still ask: Can entrepreneurship be taught? "It can be taught," asserts Stephen Spinelli, director of Babson's Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship. "But I'm not sure it can always be learned. There are processes to entrepreneurship that we teach, but does that create a prescription for entrepreneurship? No. There are millions of variables, and they're too dynamic for us, at least in our present state of understanding, to be able to prescribe success. But can we teach students enough to push up the odds of success? I think so."

Well-chosen extracurricular activities can push those odds up still further, argues Alvin Rohrs, CEO of Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE), a Springfield, Missouri, organization that has enlisted business students at more than 1,400 schools around the globe to teach members of their local communities to start businesses. "It works on two levels," says Rohrs. "One of our premises is that if you're asked to teach something, you're going to learn it better." Student teachers learn organization, teambuilding, communication and leadership. And the informal entrepreneurship students in the communities also benefit. "SIFE teams in Ghana and Mexico [have taken] entire villages and turned them from subsistence farmers into business owners," explains Rohrs.

Making a Choice

The explosion of entrepreneurial instruction has unquestionably made the selection of a school tougher for students struggling to become entrepreneurs through education. The basic question they're asking is: "Who's got the best program for me?"

Students overwhelmingly state that they start the selection process by looking at two key criteria. First, they want to enroll in a college or university that has a great reputation. Once they know which level of schools they can get into, then they want an entrepreneurship program that meets their specific interests. At the first stage of the screening process, a school's reputation is either national or regional--and entrepreneurship programs typically fall into one of three categories: Comprehensive programs, Entrepreneurship Emphasis programs and Limited Curriculum programs.

The first type of entrepreneurship offering is the Comprehensive program, which has the widest variety of resources. These programs typically have a large contingent of experienced faculty whose teaching and research expertise specifically relates to entrepreneurship. There are often a dozen or more separate course titles covering everything from entrepreneurship, new venture development, and small-firm finance to change and innovation, venture capital, and technology transfer. Schools with Comprehensive programs have a center dedicated to entrepreneurial studies, one or more specialty research institutes, a business plan competition, mentoring programs, and possibly an incubator to help launch new ventures.

A second type of program is the Entrepreneurship Emphasis program. These usually sport a smaller entrepreneurship faculty and a lower number of course offerings. Students might still be able to emphasize entrepreneurship within a business or economics major. There may or may not be a center or research institute, an incubator, or other business outreach initiatives, and if there are, these are typically smaller not only in size but also in scope.

The third program type is called a Limited Curriculum program, which typically has only a few faculty (sometimes just one or two) teaching a limited number of courses. Students generally do not get a major or emphasis in entrepreneurship studies, but rather take a class or two as part of another major. The program is often designed for undergraduates (but may include some grad students) and provides limited resources to support student ventures, business financing or other initiatives. The best of these programs use innovative courses to integrate entrepreneurial perspectives across the curriculum, and they often have a broad, interdisciplinary approach to venture development, management and strategy.

A Tale of Two Students
Erin Defossé and Aruni Gunasegaram met on the first day of MBA school at the University of Texas at Austin and quickly discovered they were kindred spirits. Both had left the workplace to return to college so they could learn the skills needed to start their own businesses. Before long, they had come up with an idea worth pursuing--a business that sold technology allowing vending machine owners to remotely sense when their machines were low on inventory. They began writing a business plan and decided to enter it in the University of Texas at Austin's Moot Corp. Competition, said to be the country's oldest and most lucrative academic business plan competition.

Their plan for IsoChron Data Corp. won the 1997 contest, earning them a year's free tenancy in a start-up incubator and seed capital to get underway. The Moot Corp. win led to introductions to investors, who financed the company's emergence from the incubator as a going concern. Today, IsoChron has 14 employees and co-founder Defossé as chief technology officer, while Gunasegaram--who later became his wife--left the company to pursue other interests.

Defossé, 32, a former NASA engineer, chose the University of Texas at Austin for its combination of a top-ranked entrepreneurship program and an equally excellent reputation in information technology, the field in which he hoped to start a business. Defossé says he was also drawn to the emphasis on instruction based on practical experience, using adjunct professors who are experienced entrepreneurs. There's no doubt in his mind that the tales of the real world he learned in the program propelled IsoChron beyond earlier failures. "My partner and I got surrounded by people who knew about this," he says, "and that was the difference."

Ranking the Programs

More than 700 entrepreneurship programs were researched from September to December 2002 for this study, conducted for Entrepreneur by TechKnowledge Point Corp., a research and referral exchange in Santa Barbara, California. The final rankings are based on more than 30 criteria, including course offerings, teaching and research faculty, business-community outreaches, research centers and institutes, advisory boards, off-campus programs, other entrepreneurial initiatives, degrees and certificates offered, and faculty and alumni evaluations.

The study identified and ranked 50 schools with Comprehensive entrepreneurship programs at nationally prominent colleges and universities. Another 50 schools with Comprehensive programs were identified at the regional level and ranked. In addition, almost 200 schools with Entrepreneurship Emphasis programs and another 75 schools with Limited Curriculum programs were identified (go to to see the rankings for these schools).

Within each category, schools have been ranked by tiers and listed alphabetically within each tier. For example, the 50 schools with Comprehensive entrepreneurship programs offered at institutions with nationally recognized reputations are grouped into four tiers. The first 12 schools--the top quarter--have comparable offerings and resources, and together represent the top tier of the very best programs in the country. The second, third and fourth tiers round out other groups of 12 to 13 schools that are similar to each other in overall ranking.

During the study, almost 300 schools responded to surveys for program director, faculty and alumni rankings. The survey results reveal some interesting findings about the Comprehensive programs at nationally recognized colleges and universities, including:

  • Columbia University; the University of California, Berkeley; and the University of Indiana at Bloomington were the only schools with programs rated in the Top 10 by both faculty and alumni.
  • Only the programs at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Maryland, College Park, were rated in the Top 10 by both alumni and peers.

Among regional reputation colleges and universities, rankings of Comprehensive programs by program directors, faculty and alumni reveal the following trends:

  • Ball State University, the University of Cincinnati and the University of Illinois at Chicago were rated in the Top 10 by faculty and in the Top 8 by peers.
  • San Diego State University and the University of Oregon were the only two rated Top 10 by alumni and Top 8 by peers, while Brigham Young University, the University of Portland and the University of Utah were the schools with programs rated Top 10 by both faculty and alumni.
  • The University of Illinois at Chicago was the only Comprehensive regional program rated in the Top 10 by faculty and alumni as well as in the Top 8 by peers.

These rankings are only a starting place for picking a school, stresses Charles Matthews, director of the entrepreneurship program at the University of Cincinnati and former president of the Small Business Institute Directors' Association. "What makes a great program is the way it matches the student's expectations, needs and entrepreneurial focus," he says.

The final decision on which program to attend comes down to a student's personal admission profile, the area or focus of entrepreneurship the student wants to pursue, and the overall fit of the program with a student's age, schedule and career stage. With the broad variety of entrepreneurial education opportunities we've uncovered, it's certain every student can find a program that offers just the right fit.

About TechKnowledge Point
TechKnowledge Point Corp. of Santa Barbara, California, performed the ranking study for this article. Founded in 2001 by David Newton, TechKnowledge Point is the world's first entrepreneurship/business development research and referral ex-change. Its proprietary online database contains comprehensive information about 1,000-plus collegiate entrepreneurship programs worldwide, more than 2,400 individual profiles of these programs' faculty, and summaries of more than 500 journal articles since 1991 dealing with entrepreneurship and venture development. TechKnowledge Point staff Laurie Bauman, Heath Bradbury, James DeVries, Jay Lorentzen, Keith Luna and Jesse Newton contributed to this study.

David Newton is's Financing Expert. Mark Henricks is Entrepreneur magazine's "Smart Moves" columnist.

More from Entrepreneur
Our Franchise Advisors are here to help you throughout the entire process of building your franchise organization!
  1. Schedule a FREE one-on-one session with a Franchise Advisor
  2. Choose one of our programs that matches your needs, budget, and timeline
  3. Launch your new franchise organization
Make sure you’re covered if an employee gets injured at work by
  • Providing us with basic information about your business
  • Verifying details about your business with one of our specialists
  • Speaking with an agent who is specifically suited to insure your business
Make sure you’re covered for physical injuries or property damage that occur at work by
  • Providing us with basic information about your business
  • Verifying details about your business with one of our specialists
  • Speaking with an agent who is specifically suited to insure your business

Latest on Entrepreneur