A New Way to Recruit Outstanding Students

Podcast by Daniel Barwick

This week I’d like to talk about an opportunity for college to reward entrepreneurial student activities, yet few schools, if any, are taking advantage of a means to award credit, generate revenue, and provide students with a genuine and distinctive credential as well as recruit absolutely outstanding students.

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I first discussed this idea in a recent blog post on the blog of the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship (NECCE) and I’d like to enlarge a little bit on it here. One of the most significant missed recruiting and credentialing opportunities for higher ed is ongoing entrepreneurial activity by students – entrepreneurial activity that’s not assigned by a teacher. Currently, there are many schools that offer credit for entrepreneurial activity. There are obvious candidates: There could be a traditional class in which either a group or individual entrepreneur projects are assigned as part of the class, or directed study in which the student proposes an entrepreneurial project and works directly with a faculty member. It could be a credit-bearing internship in which the student is working with an entrepreneur. (Oh, and by the way, the last one where the credit bearing internship in which the student is working an entrepreneur – these are actually surprisingly rare. The reasons for that are kind of interesting to me and there’ll be a subject of another podcast.)

Schools do use these different methods to award credit to students. Remember that there are some activities, like an entrepreneurial club, which is extracurricular and thus by definition is not going to be a candidate for academic credit. To a certain extent, the opportunities for credit will depend on the school’s interest in entrepreneurship. No surprise there, of course, but it also depends on the school’s definition of what constitutes entrepreneurial activity. Overwhelmingly, entrepreneurs are seen as individuals going into business for themselves and in fact are business people. I’ve argued in an earlier podcast that this conception has been detrimental to entrepreneurship education and to entrepreneurs themselves. The broader the definition, the more opportunities there will be for students to engage in activities that meet the definition. And as I’ve argued in an earlier podcast, the narrowness of how most schools define entrepreneurship is a real missed opportunity for those institutions.

Of the schools that I canvased for in my research, none specifically offer students credit for preexisting and ongoing entrepreneurial activities, and none recruit students specifically based on knowledge of their entrepreneurial activity. Let me use a real life example: Laura is a 19 year old sophomore at a large Midwestern university which stresses entrepreneurship, primarily in its business division, which is typical. Laura is an art major. She’s quite entrepreneurial. She places her paintings for sale on internet art sites. She places the same paintings on Facebook for sale. She receives commissions for new artworks from people across the country. She designs earrings for sale at a local store. She has to maintain a supply inventory of the raw materials that she uses for both the paintings and the jewelry and she has to price her products appropriately, pricing them wholesale in the case of items that are being resold in the store, and pricing them as retail, in the case of items she is selling directly to the consumer. In other words, she’s responsible for the design, production, marketing, packaging, pricing and sale of her work. She also must constantly create new designs based on established market preferences from prior sales.

Laura’s college has an entrepreneurship program. They have an entrepreneur’s club. They have elaborate makerspaces, extensive corporate internship opportunities and respected business programs, but there is no accommodation for an art major who seeks credit for engaging in such thoroughly entrepreneurial activity. When Laura graduates and wants to put her art skills to work for a company, perhaps as a graphic designer, I think that company would be impressed to know about the work that she’s doing. Of course, there’s nothing stopping Laura from describing this to a prospective employer, but credit on the transcript gives the work a credibility and a status that mere description will never achieve, and it could very well distinguished Laura from other applicants.

What is the obstacle for schools to give credit for this kind of activity? The primary issue appears to be timeframe: unless the student is asked to do a single element of the life cycle of a business, product or service, most of what student entrepreneurs are doing spans more than a quarter, a semester, or in some cases, even an academic year. (A second issue is instructor buy-in; the broader the type of activity that qualifies as entrepreneurial, the more varied with the fact with the faculty who help need to be in order to participate in order to evaluate that activity.)

But these problems are surmountable. Schools already break majors into components and offer classes about each component on the assumption that once the various components have been completed, the entire major has been mastered. Schools could approach entrepreneurial activity the same way and although in many cases they would need to give credit for work that’s already been completed. This isn’t substantially different from the concept of transferring credit that has been completed at another school. The only real difference is that an appropriate academic would need to examine the work that was completed in the past. When a student transfers work from another school, the assumption is that the first school has essentially certified the quality of that work, the appropriateness of it, and so forth. And so the evaluative component has already been done. What I’m describing is that when a student is being given credit for entrepreneurial activity, some appropriate academic would have to do that evaluative work. The school would still bill the student for the evaluation of the work, and so it wouldn’t be giving away credit for free.

Presumably the school would continue to evaluate the work on an ongoing basis. I would advocate that some of the entrepreneurial work be done while the student is at that school. I’m not advocating for some sort of credit solely for activities performed long ago. So in the case of Laura, her work could be evaluated, but if it’s something that she did 10 years ago, did it for five years and then stopped, I think at that point it’s very, very difficult, five years later, for any instructor to evaluate that work. It’s not impossible, but if the person is truly interested in the entrepreneurial activity, one presumes it’s continuing and that’s important. Here’s why: What I’m suggesting is that the missed opportunity on the part of the schools is not just that there’s credit to be awarded, that there’s revenue to be had, and so forth. What I’m suggesting is that prospective students could be identified based on this entrepreneurial activity.

Based on my experience (not data), students who engage in ongoing entrepreneurial activity tend to be very good students. They tend to be self-starters. They tend to be independently-minded. They tend to be original thinkers. They tend to be high energy. And these are exactly the kinds of students that you want at your school. I suggest that schools adopt entrepreneurial activity as a screening component for new students. I suggest that they actually look for students based on whether they’re engaged in entrepreneurial activity and I’d further suggest that they accept those students based on their entrepreneurial activity, which I think probably indicates far more about the student than many of the kinds of things that admissions departments typically consider. What’s needed is real research; controlled experiments in which a sufficiently large school recruits and accepts and tracks students based perhaps solely on their entrepreneurial activity and then compare those students to the students who were recruited and accepted based on the criteria that the school was already using.