We’ve covered at length the debate over whether entrepreneurship is teachable, and my colleague Lauren Landry has catalogued the various approaches to teaching it at Boston’s many colleges. But one thing I’ve not yet heard suggested is that the academy devotes too much of its time preparing students for startups.
Yet, a post at the 4% Growth Project—an economic policy initiative, and think tank, of the George W. Bush Institute—raises doubt about the rise in entrepreneurship education at America’s universities. The author, himself a professor of entrepreneurship at Syracuse, makes the following point:
But in reality, such entrepreneurship programs may be something like sleeve buttons on a man’s suit — they are there but serve no real purpose. Maybe students think entrepreneurship courses hold the key to being the next Facebook billionaire. Perhaps alumni hear a convincing story of how the university is directly helping the economy, in a manner that provides cover for the anti-business leanings of most institutions. It just might be that teaching entrepreneurship is one of the easiest jobs in academe — there is no agreed upon canon of information to transmit. Because large data sets don’t exist, research in the field can never be rigorous as it is in, say, economics. Professors proliferate — entrepreneurially. Indeed, the nation has at least 6,000 professors of entrepreneurship today. Students flock to their courses because there is increasing interest about creating a new business in an economy where students may have to make their own jobs.
But the troubling reality is that as we have deployed more professors of entrepreneurship, the number of new firms has decreased (see my related article for the Harvard Business Review Magazine).
I can’t disagree with the post’s most basic point: it’s important to think about entrepreneurship and startups in terms of supply and demand. I’ve pointed out, for instance, that increasing the supply of capital, absent any other changes, might not do much to boost the number of successful startups as investment seems subject to diminishing returns.
But by most accounts, talent remains a critical bottleneck in the startup ecosystem. If you believe entrepreneurial skills—or even just the skills necessary to become successful startup joiners—can be taught, you’ll likely think educational programs can address this gap. Moreover, even if these skills can’t be taught, entrepreneurship programs at universities still act to redirect students toward careers in startups. Just like a course in Congress 101 might convey little about the day-to-day complexities of working on the Hill, but may nonetheless be formative in a graduate’s decision to take a job in politics.
Finally, I have to hit on something of a hobby horse. Yes, measuring startups is difficult. But the rate of new businesses created is a terrible measure, at least if we assume what we really care about is the kind of high-growth, mostly tech-focused startups that actually play a major role in economic growth and job creation. (See: here, here.)
I’ll be the first to agree with the author’s conclusion that we can’t neglect the demand side; a good economic policy. But ignoring the role of talent allocation in the success of startups is a mistake.