College students and entrepreneurship, or the new myth of the self-made College graduate



I recently came across four articles, none of which make explicit reference to each other but each of which seems to have been written with at least some ambiguous notion of what at least one of the others is focusing on. I am going to treat the four articles in an order that allows me to bring some coherence to the discussion, but I want to emphasize that I am imposing that coherence on the discussion. The fact that it didn’t exist otherwise is really the main point of this post. It seems illustrative of the way in which many of the discussions of the more central issues in higher education frequently dissolve into passionate assertions of opinion that are worse than useless—that are more damaging than silence—because they are not actually about the same things, because no one is stipulating a starting point, what is actually at issue.

The first article, “How Can College Students Become Successful Entrepreneurs?,” first appeared in Quora and was later republished in Slate. The author, Nate Berkopec of New York University, discusses the shortcomings of many degree programs in entrepreneurship, asserting that any program that consists largely of conventional courses is very much shortchanging its students. In Berkopec’s view, the most effective way to understand entrepreneurship is to become engaged in it, and those degree programs that take students out of the classroom and provide them with first-hand experience of what it means to be an entrepreneur will be the most successful. More specifically, Berkopec suggests that it is important for students to learn some of the basic skills essential to today’s start-up entrepreneurs, such as html coding. More broadly, Berkopec argues that students should be encouraged to create their own start-ups and not to think in terms of first joining existing enterprises.

The second article, “Why Your College Student Should Start a Business,” was published in Entrepreneur. It seems to take Berkopec’s arguments one step further in asserting that at least some students should create start-ups while enrolled as students. The article provides a succinct overview of the approach that those students should take in order to have the greatest chance at success. I couldn’t help but think, however, about how much simply working one’s way through school seems to impede progress toward graduation and about how much more time-consuming it would be to create and manage a new business than it is simply to hold down a job. Moreover, given the very high rate of failures in the first three years among new small businesses, this whole idea seems to me very likely to compound students’ chances of failing by adding entrepreneurial failure to a much increased chance of failing to complete a degree. Although there may be many anecdotal illustrations of college students who developed successful businesses while completing their degrees, I doubt very much that there is any convincing statistical support for encouraging this option.

Written by Nenad Tadic for USA Today, the third article, “For the College Entrepreneur, Options and Choices Abound,” does emphasize the truth largely ignored in the previous article—that for every successful college entrepreneur, there are a “thousand” who fail (perhaps tens of thousands or hundred of thousands would be more accurate). Yet, paradoxically, the article’s tone is very upbeat about the early pursuit of entrepreneurship, even if it means an either-or choice between trying to build a business or completing a degree. Tadic even points out that at the relatively small number of institutions that sponsor small-business accelerators, it may be possible for students to synthesize their entrepreneurial dreams and their studies.

Finally, the fourth article seems to present an argument that is superficially almost diametrically opposite that presented by Berkopec in the first article, but that actually just takes his devaluing of classroom instruction in a very different direction. Written by Eric V. Holtzclaw of the Young Entrepreneurs Council and published in Forbes, “The Secret to Entrepreneurial Success: Forget College” is as misleading in its title as it is blunt. For it becomes clear that the author himself is college educated and that, while he sees the value in a “gap year” and sees no value in the MBA, he is not really discouraging anyone from getting a degree. What he is arguing for, however, is a very different perspective on the main benefits of attending college. In essence, Holtzclaw seems to value the opportunities to network with similarly ambitious classmates and with established businesses through internships much more than he values the actual classroom instruction that he received, which gets barely a mention. Clearly, the opportunity to become “well connected” is a large part of the attraction of elite institutions, but this seems a more dubious proposition for most students at institutions with more modest reputations, at least as a primary focus. More theoretically, what Holtzclaw seems to be describing is a sort of deterministic equation: that is, an approach that is never going to be a long-term, viable option for more than a select few is presented as a model for everyone else; it won’t address the problem that it purports to solve—the difficulty that many recent graduates have had in finding meaningful employment that matches their credentials—but it shifts the failure from the system to the individual. In short, the problem is not with some structural issues in the economy that may require political intervention, but the problem is, instead, with the individual’s failure to do what needs to be done.

So, all of these article appear to be treating much the same topic, but they are taking such different angles on the topic that together they provide a very disjointed sense of what is actually at issue. What I really think is at issue is the value of actual education: the unifying theme seems to be that the degree may have some value but not the actual education. At its core, this is a 21st-century version of the mythology of the self-created man–the digital age’s version of the “men who built America” (to borrow the title of the recent History Channel series), the new Rockefellers, Carnegies, and Morgans. But, for most Americans, for whom a college degree will mean two and a half times the lifetime earnings of someone with just a high school diploma, it is an ideologically driven fairy tale. And given that “lifetime employment” with almost any corporation is now an anachronism and that technical skills become almost as quickly dated as our digital gadgets, the value of a college degree will become increasingly proportionate to the actual education that the individual has received. Because it is that education that will provide an individual with the intellectual capacity to shift career paths flexibly and successfully multiple times over the length of his or her working life.