Entrepreneurship Has No Business in Higher Education

“Dilbert” cartoonist and WSJ editorial writer Scott Adams recently suggested that “B” students should be studying entrepreneurship rather than basic science or classic literature. He proposed a curriculum centered on “the art of persuasion,” along with business writing and Dale Carnegie courses.

It worked for him, so it should work for everyone, right?

Not so fast, funnyman.  Adams correctly pointed out that combining skills leads to competitive advantage, that “a cartoonist with negligible art talent, some basic writing skills, an ordinary sense of humor and a bit of experience in the business world” can achieve greater success than a wunderkind in any one of those areas. Yet his prescribed course of study would shrink the humanities and science departments that provide students with the basic ingredients for building those combined skill sets.

In practice, I’d expect that an entrepreneurship degree would end up as more or less a tricked-out undergraduate business degree — something that already serves as a magnet for less-motivated students. In a survey of “student engagement,” undergraduate business majors performed worse than students in any other field. The business majors spent fewer hours studying, posted the weakest gains in writing and reasoning, and scored lower on the GMAT (the standardized entrance exam for MBA programs).

How would an entrepreneurship degree differ, given that the underlying motivations and incentives would be unchanged?

One of the draws of studying business is that it’s easier during a job interview to explain why you became a business major than to answer the difficult question of why your undergraduate degree in philosophy qualifies you for an entry-level position. No doubt, a student with a true passion for philosophy would ace that question — if they ever get the interview in the first place. In an anti-intellectual culture, frivolous students appear serious while serious students seem frivolous.

Students would learn more about the “art of persuasion” by convincing future employers that they did the right thing by following their intellectual passions in Victorian literature, Italian Renaissance painting, mollusk fossils, or what have you than by spending four years staring at the clock learning things more appropriately learned on the job. It’s also better for entrepreneurship: Following your intellectual passions is a faster route to an “a-ha!” moment than studying other people’s “a-ha!” moments (unless your passion is studying “a-ha!” moments).

We don’t teach political science majors how to work a phone bank, history majors how to fire a rifle, or psych majors how to fit a straitjacket. Why, then, do we expect institutions dedicated to truth and knowledge to transform themselves en masse into entrepreneurship factories?

Were the academy to pursue the impulse to institutionalize entrepreneurship, it would be faced with the novel problem of a core curriculum celebrating famous college dropouts such as Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Mark Zuckerberg, and Lady Gaga. That’s like teaching atheism at Sunday school or bartending at an Al-Anon meeting. What’s more, it tells students, “If you’re still here by the time commencement rolls around, you’re a failure.”

Here are more reasons why I think entrepreneurship and the university make bad bedfellows at the undergraduate level:

Entrepreneurship is risk-seeking behavior. Do older teenagers really need more training in how to take risks? Risk-taking is in their blood. They start smoking cigarettes and other combustible materials, they drink beer out of funnels, they have sexual relations with near-strangers, they drive too fast, and yet these are some of the risk-seeking qualities required to start successful small businesses. The young adults most comfortable with risk will end up the most natural entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, risk-averse students pressured to follow the money will undertake an enormous effort to learn a great deal about people they will never become.

Entrepreneurship requires an outsider perspective. Starting a business is the province of drop-outs and artists, the spark of creativity taken to the extremes of imagination. Following a truly novel idea from concept to execution requires a focused, all-consuming dedication to a single goal, which is completely ill-suited to the typical college schedule of distribution requirements, student activities, and dorm life.

Entrepreneurship can’t be forced. The drive to innovate stems from dissatisfaction with the status quo, based on the firm belief that there’s a better way to do something. But you can’t force innovation. A recent HBR blog post described the folly of trying to spur innovation in the enterprise through the tactic of keeping projects starved of resources. It’s equally foolish to expect innovation to arise out of creating an artificial scarcity in high grades within a crowded classroom full of students with highly variable levels of dedication, talent, and motivation.

Entrepreneurship can be oversold. Let’s start with the reasonable premise that there’s an education bubble in America, in that students are not being sufficiently rewarded by the marketplace for their educational investments. No argument from me on that score. But that’s no reason to turn that into an entrepreneurship bubble, unless, of course, you stand to profit from such a bubble. If an entire generation gets sold on the idea of becoming entrepreneurs, commercial real estate firms can fill vacancies, office supply stores and high-tech vendors can ship more products, and bankers can boost their assets by financing the whole merry-go-round. The losers in this scenario are the kids who mortgage their future chasing half-baked entrepreneurial dreams when they would have been better off going to parties and reading heavy books.

Those who would reshape the academy as entrepreneur mills have misguided ideas about both entrepreneurship and education. In fact, if Entrepreneur U. is such a great idea, why don’t its proponents put skin in the game and start a specialty educational institution? That would impress me more than writing an editorial or endowing a chair.

PayPal founder Peter Thiel has taken a much more sophisticated approach to funding nascent entrepreneurs. Instead of trying to get the universities to change themselves into startup mills, he’s providing a better alternative for their best and brightest. The “20 Under 20” Thiel Fellowship awards 24 (but who’s counting) people under 20 years of age $100,000 each and the opportunity to hone their own ideas for a two-year period, backed by a stable of more than 100 Silicon Valley mentors. Leave it to the guy who founded a successful company by free-riding on the legacy banking infrastructure to come up with a way to free-ride on the admissions process of the world’s top universities.

My advice to the academy would be to rebuff the calls to manufacture entrepreneurs, and to return to base principles by teaching the traditional departments both unashamedly and rigorously.

My advice to small-business owners who hire recent graduates: Give the liberal-arts majors a break. They’re harder workers, and they’ll learn the business soon enough. 

And if I were teaching a college-level entrepreneurship course, at the first lecture I would race through everything I can think to say about the subject, adding these comments at the end:

“You can learn about entrepreneurship studying the steel mills of Pittsburgh, the philosophical underpinnings of Western civilization, or authors such as William Gaddis, John Dos Passos, or even Shakespeare. For what’s The Merchant of Venice if not a story about a businessman with cash flow issues? You have an entire lifetime to come up with a killer business idea, but your youth is the optimal time to fill your mind to what Matthew Arnold described as ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world.’

“Moreover, not only is the university the best place to learn about other cultures through their language, literature and history, it’s also the best way to forge personal friendships with people from other cultures. In our globalizing world, it will be your depth of understanding of how your own friends think that will spark your creativity.

“Your homework is to visit the registrar to sign up for a different course, because if you come back for the second lecture, I will fail you.”