Entrepreneurship programs at area universities are gaining popularity
A measly eight students took the first entrepreneurship course Bob Chalfant taught at the University of Akron in the spring of 2009, shortly after a popular professor stopped teaching the subject.
To say the program has bounced back would be an understatement: Since the start of 2013, Mr. Chalfant has taught a total of 265 students about the ins and outs of starting a business.
Maybe it just took them a while to figure out they liked his teaching style, Mr. Chalfant said with a laugh. But he doesn't take all the credit: Demand for entrepreneurship courses continues to rise at colleges across Northeast Ohio, according to information from schools throughout the region.
It has been nearly a decade since local colleges started adding entrepreneurship courses, majors and minors. Even so, demand for those offerings still is on the rise, local officials say.
During the 2011-2012 school year, undergraduate students filled a total of 1,626 seats in entrepreneurship courses at six area colleges — Baldwin Wallace University, John Carroll University, Ashland University, Hiram College, Lake Erie College and Oberlin College. That total was up 28% from 1,272 two years earlier, according to the most recent data reported to the Burton D. Morgan Foundation.
The foundation — which has helped those schools expand their entrepreneurship programs, starting in 2006 — may have played a small role in boosting those statistics, said Deborah Hoover, president and CEO of the Hudson-based organization. It has continued to provide those schools with grants to support entrepreneurship programs, both inside and outside the classroom.
But ongoing cultural changes are the main reason students keep signing up for entrepreneurship curricula, according to several people interviewed for this story.
The swing of things
For one, the recession has pushed more students to think about entrepreneurship as a viable career path, Ms. Hoover said, as many jobs seem less secure than they once did.
Plus, students these days are less likely to dream about landing a plush corporate gig where they will spend their entire career climbing the proverbial ladder.
“They're not necessarily going to be in the same job for 10, 20, 30 years,” Ms. Hoover said.
Demand also is rising because entrepreneurship “is a huge part of popular culture right now,” according to Sergey Anokhin, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Business Innovation at Kent State University.
Facebook played a role in that phenomenon. So did YouTube. And Twitter. And Instagram. All of which were started by people who were relatively young.
Kent State created a minor in entrepreneurship in 2006 and added a major in 2009, shortly after opening the Center for Entrepreneurship and Business Innovation.
Thus, enrollment in entrepreneurship courses at the school has exploded: Students filled 1,067 seats in entrepreneurship courses during the 2012-2013 school year. That's up 42% from 749 during the 2010-2011 school year. The year before that, enrollment stood at 323.
Dr. Anokhin says the growth of entrepreneurship education should continue, especially now that it's spreading beyond business departments and weaving its way into other courses.
“It's a process that's in full swing all across the nation,” he said.
Out of the think(box)
That upswing is what Wendy Torrance is seeing from her vantage point at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a Kansas City-based organization that finances projects related to entrepreneurship and education across the country.
Nationwide, faculty members and administrators keep adding new entrepreneurship courses, and students keep signing up for them, Ms. Torrance said. That's true at liberal arts colleges that have no business schools, as well as colleges that have had entrepreneurial programs in place for years, she said, citing how the University of Michigan this month said it would create an entrepreneurship program, perhaps a minor, that will be open to students in all majors.
Michigan also plans to add more extracurricular programs related to entrepreneurship — something many Northeast Ohio schools are doing, too.
Take Case Western Reserve University. The school has seen enrollment in undergraduate entrepreneurship courses fall from 195 eight years ago to 120 during the last school year for two reasons: The number of undergraduate business students on campus dropped by about 20% during that period, and management majors no longer must take an intro to entrepreneurship course.
But last year the university opened think[box], a lab where students can build prototypes with the help of a laser cutter, 3-D printers and other equipment. Plus, the university is one of four local colleges that started coaching young entrepreneurs two years ago through Blackstone LaunchPad, a program financed by the Blackstone Charitable Foundation and the Morgan Foundation.
Learning by doing
It doesn't hurt entrepreneurship programs that there are more opportunities for young entrepreneurs in Northeast Ohio these days, according to Michael Goldberg, who teaches three entrepreneurship courses at Case Western Reserve.
For instance, on Mr. Goldberg's advice, a student in his entrepreneurial finance class joined the FlashStarts business accelerator in Cleveland. That accelerator, which provides startups with capital and mentoring in exchange for equity, started just this past summer. And two similar programs that work with a lot of young entrepreneurs — the LaunchHouse Accelerator and Bizdom Cleveland — didn't exist three years ago.
“A couple of years ago, I don't know where I would've sent him,” Mr. Goldberg said.
So, should colleges be putting such a big emphasis on entrepreneurship? Ms. Hoover, of the Morgan Foundation, says it's warranted — as long as students are given the chance to learn by doing, which in many cases involves actually starting a business.
“It's great to learn about entrepreneurship in the classroom ... but at the end of the day, a lot of the solid learning comes from the experience of it,” she said.
Many students who take courses in the subject won't go on to start companies, but they'll learn skills that allow them to be nimble, regardless of the career path they eventually pursue, Ms. Hoover said.
That's why Kent State suggested that all of this year's incoming freshmen read “Who Owns the Icehouse?: Eight Life Lessons from an Unlikely Entrepreneur,” Dr. Anokhin said.
“We believe that if students embrace those lessons they will be successful regardless of what career path they choose,” he said.