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What Are College Entrepreneurship Programs Meant to Achieve?

A close look at the programs at eight private universities and the criteria they're using to define success.
The MIT Media Lab houses researchers developing novel uses of computer technology. (Photo: Madcoverboy/Wikimedia Commons)

The MIT Media Lab houses researchers developing novel uses of computer technology. (Photo: Madcoverboy/Wikimedia Commons)

What, exactly, is entrepreneurship? Whatever it is, universities around the United States are increasingly devoting resources to fund, encourage, and study it. In the past four years, campuses have consolidated and revamped their entrepreneurial initiatives. Universities now have centers that support student ventures, grants to incentivize enterprise, and classes devoted to the theory and practice of entrepreneurship. The stated goals of these efforts generally fall into three silos: creating an entrepreneurial culture, education, and student venture support.

U.S. higher education doesn't do a great job at tracking college outcomes—school rankings focus far too much on degree completion and test scores. But given entrepreneurship's inherent focus on deliverables, one would expect to see published outcomes of these programs. The methodologies used to evaluate university entrepreneurship programs, however, are opaque, limiting the validity of causal results. And what should the results of university entrepreneurship programs be anyway? If entrepreneurship is about knowledge creation, then results should focus on novel ideas produced. If, instead, entrepreneurship is about enterprise creation and disruption, then universities should be tracking if, and how successfully, student ventures are commercializing. It's an important distinction, because before settling on mechanisms to evaluate efficacy, a school has to know what its entrepreneurship program seeks to do. How can schools, donors, and the government track collegiate entrepreneurship's return on investment if they don't know what to measure?

I decided to investigate eight private universities with robust entrepreneurship programs and survey the criteria the universities are using to define success. A trend emerged: Programs with educational goals focused on "helping" entrepreneurs, while programs with data-driven evaluation had a doctrine of "pushing" entrepreneurs instead. In other words, there is a developing split in university entrepreneurship programs' objectives, with the binary between "helping" and "pushing."

Entrepreneurship as a collegiate discipline has had a dynamic history over the past 20 years. Entrepreneurial programs at European universities in the 1990s, according to an article by the Journal of European Industrial Training, had goals that fell within three categories: creating an enterprising culture, teaching entrepreneurship as its own discipline, and training students who wanted to start their own enterprise. In practice, however, European entrepreneurship programs focused on teaching technical skills, such as design or coding, not on culture.

This approach isn't surprising—it's become quite typical of Europe this century to emphasize career technical education at the college level, linking educational practice to corporate needs, over the liberal arts. But outside the classroom, entrepreneurship has languished relative to the U.S. Europeans say their continent has a problem culturally with entrepreneurship because they have a different perception of risk and failure, which in turn is built upon a European view of institutions and society. In Europe, an entrepreneur is often seen as someone who wasn't good enough to be hired by a government agency or an established conglomerate. Failure is feared in Europe, and devastating when it occurs, whereas in the U.S. the view is more likely to be, "You failed? OK, what did you learn? Now, go on and try it again."

A trend emerged: Programs with educational goals focused on "helping" entrepreneurs, while programs with data-driven evaluation had a doctrine of "pushing" entrepreneurs instead.

A 2013 report by the Department of Commerce noted that, while most university entrepreneurship programs hope their students are working on the next Google or Facebook, their primary focus is providing an education through practice-based learning, not start-up cultivation. For example, Harvard University's Innovation Lab, "Isn't out to create businesses with its students ... its primary concern, as always, is giving them a well-rounded education.... We don't push, we help." The above case follows a common understanding of university entrepreneurship—that it is an addendum to students' curriculum and an opportunity for practice-based pedagogy. Students are evaluated less on their potential to commercialize an idea and more on their work ethic and academic prowess of entrepreneurial concepts. These schools are "helping" students rather than "pushing" them.

In the last two decades, however, another strain of entrepreneurship pedagogy has appeared. Students in entrepreneurship programs at the University of California–Berkeley have commented, "Here at Cal, we tend to ask what's the real-world problem we are trying to solve.... 'What's the high impact?' Start-ups that will become successful will give back to Cal." The director of UC–Berkeley's Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology remarked: "Signature elements of [our] program: All instructors are practitioners ... classes are open to students of all academic backgrounds [because] entrepreneurship is a multi-disciplinary sport ... we are competition-driven." University entrepreneurship at schools like UC–Berkeley, Stanford University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is less about learning opportunities and more about commercializing student ideas, disrupting old industries, and doing all of this faster than the rest. Bad ventures are left behind, and good ones only reach the market if they are daringly executed—describing entrepreneurship as a "sport" here is apt. These schools don't help. They push.

This brings us to my own examination. The eight schools I considered are Carnegie-Mellon, the University of Chicago, Cornell University, Duke University, the Illinois Institute of Technology, Harvard, MIT, and Stanford. All of these schools have consolidated entrepreneurship hubs that offer a balance of courses on, programs supporting, and resources devoted to entrepreneurship. However, these programs are diverse in their founding dates, locations, endowments, institutional sizes, and pedagogies. Some programs explicitly notice results of their work (as in jobs or companies created), while others state general facts about the program (as in total numbers of alumni who have ever founded companies or amount of funding campus enterprises have collected).

Essentially, every university seeks to maximize learning opportunities for students, synergize inter-departmental research, and encourage innovation. However, a clear divergence in university entrepreneurship programs appears in the programs' mission statements, where there is a noticeable difference in language and tone that exemplifies the difference between push- and help-oriented schools. The distinctions are below.


  • Duke’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program: "Duke I&E does not displace the university's time-tested mission of teaching and the creation of knowledge, but rather expands that mission to include the conversion of knowledge into real things and real actions to make a real difference in real people's lives."
  • Chicago's Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship: "Advances the knowledge and practice of entrepreneurship and innovation through a broad range of activities, including academics, research, conferences, competitions, and global and community outreach.... Working at the nexus of creativity and analytic rigor, the Polsky Center sparks innovation and entrepreneurship both on and off campus."
  • Babson's Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship: "The center focuses on expanding the practice of Entrepreneurship of All Kinds through innovative co-curricular programs and global collaborative research initiatives that inspire and inform Entrepreneurial Thought and Action."
  • Cornell's Entrepreneurship@Cornell: "Cornell University traces its origins to the vision of an entrepreneur and an educational innovator who together saw the opportunity to create a new kind of university for America. By combining traditional subjects with new, emerging and practical areas of inquiry, Ezra Cornell and Andrew D. White built a university singularly able to address the needs of 19th century America."
  • Harvard's Innovation Lab: "For students, the I-lab provides foundational learning as the educational entry point for exploring entrepreneurship and innovation. This includes the faculty-led Harvard courses focused on innovation and entrepreneurship taught in the I-lab classroom, and includes a repository of skill-based workshop and seminar videos, presentation materials, and guides."


  • MIT's Martin Trust Center: "We must not only be the best. We must also serve as a model for others and ensure that, together, we all make a significant global impact in this vital field."
  • IIT's Stuart Knapp Center: "[O]ffers a wide variety of supportive services for start-up and existing small businesses.... The road to commercializing a product idea or revolutionary new service is difficult and filled with obstacles ... to help you find resources to overcome these obstacles, and get you on the path to success.... Provide clients with excellent one-on-one technical assistance; offer referrals to reputable resources and partners; deliver educational programming and seminars on topics of value; and support IIT students, faculty, alumni and the community at large in their entrepreneurial endeavors."

The programs' mission statements should dictate the overarching culture that guides a school's goals. For the help schools, there is emphasis on entrepreneurship as an extension of course curriculum. Harvard's I-Lab is "an entry point," and although it's essentially an incubator, it's referred to as a "classroom." Cornell claims its program is not a new way of doing things but an extension of their founder's mission of creating "a new kind of university," and emphasizes that entrepreneurship entails combining new academic subjects with old ones. Duke says its entrepreneurship program doesn't displace teaching and knowledge creation, but is instead a new way of converting knowledge.

The push schools use different language—there is a focus on impact, novelty, commercialization, and, implicitly, creative destruction. The push schools are competitive—MIT "wants to be the best." There is an emphasis on local, regional, and global impact and scalability. Additionally, there are numerous agents being addressed at once. The push schools exist to concurrently strengthen the university, the entrepreneur, the researcher, and the student. Underlying all the push statements is the presumption that impact should help many at once.

A school's classification as "help" or "push" is important because it begets the methods it uses to evaluate its goals. The help schools, whose years of existence range from 16 (Harvard) to six (Cornell), still cite results that emphasize the creation, presence, and depth of their resources. For example, Duke's Innovation and Entrepreneurship brochure includes only four case studies of entrepreneurial impact and spends the rest of its space discussing internship, fellowship, and engagement opportunities. There is little mention of companies created or economic impact, save mention of alumni who passed through their program's classrooms.

The push schools are far more data-driven than their peers when it comes to results. Stanford and Carnegie-Mellon list companies their graduates have founded. MIT is the best here—in 2009, 2011, and 2015 it published entrepreneurial impact reports (running 30 to 70  pages per report) that outline MIT alumni's job creation numbers, received venture capital, and impact on the local and global economy. For example, in its 2009 report MIT claims that it has an extraordinarily high number of "repeat founders," its alumni's companies have created 3,283,294 jobs, it has created a biotech and energy cluster in Cambridge, and most of its firms were founded in Massachusetts, California, Texas, and New York. The push schools make a concerted effort to mention how their entrepreneurship has contributed to the domestic and world community, catering their message to policymakers and businesses in addition to academics.

To be sure, many of the examples cited above only mean much if the individual programs' websites entirely represent their culture and pedagogical paradigm. It is also not clear whether university cultures beget a program's goals or whether the converse is the case. Unexpectedly, the number of years a program has operated or the city in which it sits is not an obvious driver in its "push" or "help" status.

Regardless, it appears that university entrepreneurship programs, while budding throughout the country, operate under different paradigms. As time passes, it is likely that more schools will open incubators, more donors will endow named centers, and more administrators will hope the next unicorn founder is in their midst. This isn't a bad thing at all, but it's important that schools, donors, administrators, and prospective students know the culture they seek before breaking ground and know what they mean when they say they're fostering entrepreneurship, because, in this context, you don't necessarily help by pushing.


This story originally appeared in New America’s digital magazine, New America Weekly, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get New America Weekly delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.