Why Entrepreneurial Colleges are Better

Podcast by Daniel Barwick

I’m recording this podcast on a Sunday, just two days after the release of Last Chance U season four. And I’ve been inundated with people who would like me to comment on the show and they’d like me to do another Q and A that I did last year. I’ll do the Q and A sometime soon. I’ll just say about the show that, the reviews of it had been very good. The consensus seems to be that the fact that the team had a losing season allowed the show to portray a side of personalities and football in general; essentially coming to terms with losing more often than winning. And that allowed the show to show a new dimension that they weren’t able to do previously.

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You know, for me, I think that there’s an element about the show that I’d like to just mention:

I do read of course the many posts from social media users since the show was released. Nearly all of the posts are about the coach, Jason Brown. Of course people are interested in Brown. He was a polarizing, profane person whose personality was very different than most of us who live in Independence. I’m not devoting this podcast to Last Chance U, but I do want to point out that the social media I’ve read and the local comments I’ve heard suggest that I, I think we’re being distracted from what matters. A college exists primarily for the good of its students and those who work at colleges are primarily interested in the welfare of the students. It wasn’t a devotion to Jason Brown that caused ICC’s dedicated English teacher Heather, my dosh to work hours with her students, including with some who are documented in the program. What it was, was a desire to help her students achieve academic and life success. Yet, social media commentary and local commentary focuses not on Mydosh devotion to her students, but on of course the coach. Why? I say that rhetorically. It was not a desire for television stardom that caused Jared Wheeler, ICC’s philosophy teacher to find ways to reach his students, athletes and non-athletes. It was a love of the subject matter and his desire to influence students’ lives for the better. Mydosh and Wheeler’s efforts did not go unnoticed – I’ve heard lots of nice comments, but let’s be honest about the ratio of the audience’s interest in student success to the interest in the antics of the coach: that the ratio is not even close. So there’s lots of ways to think about Last Chance U, but I think one of the ways I certainly think about it is that it showcases the teachers who are right here, right now, at a community college that produces students who studies show are better-prepared to move to a four-year college than any other community college in Kansas. The antics of the coach are, to me, a sort of sideshow. The success of the students and the skill of the teachers are the real events.

[Music Break]

I received an inquiry from a listener about entrepreneurship and the inquiry was this: The person listens to this podcast and notes the different ways in which Independence Community College behaves in entrepreneurial ways. However, I tend to talk about the entrepreneurship instruction that we offer to students and to the community; what I haven’t talked about is the mindset within the college itself and why that makes the college more effective at what it does. This listener observed that and asked me to just briefly address that issue. So today that’s what I’m going to do. I promised in a previous edition of this podcast that I would talk a little bit about why it’s so crucial that community colleges, not only produce entrepreneurs but also are entrepreneurial themselves. At independence community college, we fostered an environment of entrepreneurship and I think the college and the community benefited a great deal from this. And I’m sure that even though I have left that school, I’m sure that the people there who have that same mentality will continue in the school, will continue to thrive.

Why is it so critical that community colleges be entrepreneurial? First, let me just say that when you ask people what they think of when they hear the word ‘entrepreneur’, you’ll get responses like “small business person,” “self-employed,” “a profit-seeker.” However, the perception of entrepreneurs as primarily people going into business for themselves and are thus business persons has actually been detrimental to entrepreneurship education, and I would argue that that’s actually been detrimental to the entrepreneurs themselves because it’s too narrow a focus. Now colleges have failed to settle on what it means to be an entrepreneur, although they do tend, they do lean toward the kinds of explanations that I just described. In preparing for this podcast, I looked at the websites of colleges that brand themselves as entrepreneurial.

What I found was that their description of their own branding ranges from producing graduates who understand how to market what they’re producing. For example, the case of an art student who might want to effectively sell the art they produce to those who understand the finances of their chosen field or to those who seek environmental sustainability in their chosen field. So it’s obvious that these are very, very wide ranging possible descriptions of entrepreneurship. However, they’re also pretty limiting. These definitions significantly limit those who see themselves as entrepreneurs or as being entrepreneurial. A community college that accepts narrow definitions of entrepreneurship is going to run into familiar trouble. It’s going to significantly limit the number and types of students for whom entrepreneurship curriculum might be attractive. And more importantly, it’s going to produce graduates who are on the whole, not actually very entrepreneurial.

At ICC, we adopted and applied the Ice House Entrepreneurship program created by the Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative – ELI – which I have referenced that in previous podcasts. it’s run by Gary Schoeniger – fantastic outfit. If you have not yet examined the curriculum they offer, I urge you to do so. And although the program has many elements, I find its definition of entrepreneurship to be the most helpful. It embraces a broad understanding of an entrepreneur as one who solves the problems of others. And this has a number of advantages for community colleges. First, it doesn’t confine entrepreneurship to the business department or related curriculum. And this of course is something that you see very, very frequently in colleges. It doesn’t rule out students who don’t see themselves as business majors, which is one of the major drawbacks of tying the entrepreneurship curriculum directly to a business program and most importantly, it allows the community college to better serve the local community.

And this last point is crucial. If the community college views itself as entrepreneurial and able to solve the problems of its constituents, it’s going to naturally be far more responsive to the community it serves. As community colleges know, and as their name implies, they have a special obligation to meet the needs of their communities. An entrepreneurial mindset embraced throughout the institution provides the ability to solve the problems of others and is one of the most effective ways for creating strong bonds with the community itself. Let me give an example of this. When Independence Community College did an environmental scan for a one episode of our strategic planning a number of years ago, we interviewed 64 community members, taken from a broad variety of demographics, business people, homemakers, students, retirees, etc. 100% of the people we interviewed favorably referenced the Entrepreneurship Program at ICC and its physical home, the ICC Fab Lab, and they did this unprompted. These were open-ended questions that they were being asked in the survey. I challenge you to think of something at your own school that 100% of randomly selected survey respondents would spontaneously identify as something they value and appreciate.

If you’d like to see results like these at your own school, consider the following a couple of recommendations.

First, structure your entrepreneurship program in such a way that any major can earn an entrepreneurial credential as part of their degree. Easy to say, hard to do.

Second, encourage the entrepreneurship program to be structurally separate from the business program or the business school.

Third, adopt a specific definition of entrepreneurship that is sufficiently broad to allow anyone to see themselves as an entrepreneur if they’re so inclined .

Finally in recognition that your definition is broad and thus is at odds with our cultural assumptions about entrepreneurs, conduct specific outreach to student groups that don’t fit the previous cultural model. What of course you’re going to find is that people automatically think of entrepreneurs in a very narrow way and so you are going to essentially have to do outreach and education to show them that you think about entrepreneurs in a broader way, a way that’s more appealing to people away that has a wider audience and you’re going to have to do this very deliberately and in thoroughly to overcome the cultural bias we have about entrepreneurship.

The result or is entrepreneurial graduates who apply their talents to a wide variety of fields and a community college that is better positioned to serve the community. Another added benefit is that as the needs of the community change, the entrepreneurial college is better equipped to meet those needs and solve problems because the community does change. And so the college not only has to change with the community, but it has to change in ways that help the community address its own changes. A college that has a culture of not just solving problems but also seeking problems to solve will be in the best position to recognize and address future changes and challenges.