In the 1970s and 1980s, our parents told us to go to university because it would get us a good job. When we’ve worked hard for 30 years, we should be able to retire comfortably. Well, as parents today, what have we been telling our kids, millennials, and Gen Z over the past 20 years? Pretty much the same. The problem is that the world is different today. People haven’t worked jobs for 30 years. Pensions have all but disappeared. Graduating from college does not guarantee a job, let alone a fulfilling career. Gen Z and millennials have entrepreneurial ambitions and want to get more out of life. Where did it all go wrong?
If you look at the university’s educational structure, for entrepreneurship and most other majors, it hasn’t changed in 50 years or more. Particularly for would-be entrepreneurs, the education system has failed for years, including the likes of Steve Jobs, and he’s far from alone. The founders of Microsoft, Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Whole Foods, Uber, Oracle and Dell are all high school dropouts. And even if you look at the best entrepreneurship programs in the US, you can see that they are not achieving their goal of creating more startups.
Pitch Books annual university rankings as of October 2022 compare schools by adding up the number of alumni entrepreneurs who have founded venture-backed companies. The undergraduate and graduate rankings are powered by PitchBook data and are based on an analysis of more than 144,000 VC-backed founders. Babson, a top five ranked school in entrepreneurship is 96e on the list. And they have been educating entrepreneurship students for more than 50 years. In fact, entrepreneurship programs and activities are on the rise in quite a few colleges in the US. Why aren’t there more graduate entrepreneurs and subsequent startups? It’s easy. The education system in the US is not designed to encourage creativity or failure.
It starts in elementary school, continues through high school, and then causes students to fail in college. All along the way, students are taught not to think outside the box, to color between the lines, to pass the test at all costs and to move on because failure is not an option. The Educational Testing Service (ETS) gives statistics showing that while in the 1940s only 20% of students admitted to cheating, today this percentage has risen to 75 – 98%.
The current model of higher education stifles the creative soul of our students. Students are not taught or rewarded for thinking outside the box. They learn how to take exams. How does this system benefit entrepreneurship students with startup ambitions? It does not.
The United States has been unique throughout most of its history for its innovativeness, ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit. The college education system does not foster the kind of creativity, risk-taking, and problem-solving skills necessary for entrepreneurship. In a global economy, where competition is increasing exponentially, this lack of creativity and risk-taking stifles the innovative spirit. How has this affected today’s students?
Based on scores from the Torrance tests of creative thinkingKyung Hee Kim, a professor of education at the College of William and Mary, found that children are “less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less inclined to connect seemingly irrelevant things, to synthesize less, and to see things from a different angle less quickly.’ This is a study from ten years ago. Is it any wonder Gen Z students today are suffering from the highest levels of mental anguish we’ve seen in decades?
Entrepreneurs are known for disrupting the status quo. Colleges, as one of the most stagnant institutions in America, epitomize the status quo. It is logical that entrepreneurs oppose this. Programs like The Thiel community play this idea out and offer money to student entrepreneurs if they stop studying to develop their ideas. What is the alternative?
Here are three things we can do to improve the college education system, especially for students with entrepreneurial aspirations.
Focus on creativity. University curriculum in every major need to embrace creativity in their curriculum. Reward out-of-the-box thinking and ditch the multiple-choice memory tests. Introduce more lectures and project-based work that encourages innovative thinking and multiple ways to reach a solution. Have students take more orientation courses as first-year students.
Let failure become learning. Imagine a university system where… mistakes are allowed and encouraged. Teachers reward students who ask questions. Students receive feedback on each assignment and are graded on their ability to improve based on the feedback, rather than the quality of the original assignment. As Carol Dweck, the Stanford professor and researcher who has published widely on growth mindset, encourages students to grow with “not yet” feedback and grades versus a failing grade.
Let students make their major. Why do we force students in a major to take the same courses as everyone else? Universities have an incredible variety of classes, so let the students decide which one they want to take, beyond a small core, that sparks their interests and curiosity. Someone interested in disrupting biotechnology must understand the basics of biology, computer science, business, and human-centered design. There are no set courses that will make you an entrepreneur.
Entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs wanted to learn about design, computer science, business and literature. When he found out he couldn’t, he quit and chose to learn everything on his own. Today’s students who are interested in innovation and entrepreneurship want to learn about a variety of topics. Let’s innovate the university education system so that current and future students who want to become entrepreneurs learn to embrace creativity and failure and build great next-generation startups.