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The Value of Liberal Arts in Entrepreneurship

Can liberal arts colleges give entrepreneurs the upper hand?

Programs in entrepreneurship aren’t new on college campuses.  But, the mindset that college graduates may find it easier to create their own jobs rather than find one is new.

Since the Great Recession, college students have found it increasingly difficult to find and keep jobs, especially if those post-secondary skills are outdated. For large schools, heavily subsidized entrepreneurship programs are the answer. But for many smaller liberal arts schools, infusing the curriculum with entrepreneurial values, inviting distinguished guests to campus for intimate lectures, and holding interdisciplinary competitions has many wondering: can liberal arts colleges teach entrepreneurship better than business schools.

“We believe that the best preparation for a career in business is a broad-based liberal arts education,” says Chip Manning, director of the Babson Center for Global Commerce at Sewanee: The University of the South (Tenn.). “Many of today’s leaders in commerce attribute their success to the critical thinking skills, effective writing and speaking skills, and study of the human experience that are the core of the liberal arts tradition.”

In fact, Sewanee, a top 50 liberal arts college, has no business major. The university does, however, offer a business minor. Additionally, Sewanee helps student entrepreneurs through the Babson Center for Global Commerce by sponsoring distinguished visitors, such as Herb Kelleher, Joseph Petrowski, and T. Boone Pickens; and by naming executives and entrepreneurs in residence who spend time on campus. During these visits, students ask questions and sit down one-on-one with corporate leaders. 

The Center for Faithful Leadership at Hope College (Mich.) hosts “Idea Pitch and Learn” competitions each semester. Interested students can win cash prizes by giving a 90-second elevator pitch outlining a problem and how their idea helps to solve it.  Students at Western New England University (Mass.) also participate in a regional competition, the Harold Grinspoon Foundation’s Entrepreneurial Spirit program, along with a dozen other institutions.

Nearly two-thirds of those who participated in Hope’s competition came from liberal arts backgrounds. The two winning pitches—one from an international studies major and the other from a psychology major—consisted of a shoe company created to support fair-trade farmers and an organization that helps connect artists. 

“When I advertise for the Idea Pitch Learn competitions, I tend to hear more from the non-professional and non-pre-professional programs, which makes me uncomfortable as a professor of management and very happy as a former English major,” says Steve VanderVeen, director of the Center for Faithful Leadership at Hope.  “I don’t know if this means that our future innovators and entrepreneurs are more likely to be liberal arts vs. professional or pre-professional graduates, but if it does, we have been thinking about the source of entrepreneurship activity in the wrong way.”  

Students’ motivations for choosing entrepreneurship classes might be a bit different than one would think, says LeAnn Mischel, associate professor of management at Susquehanna University (Pa.). While the economy has played a role in accentuating entrepreneurship, it’s not the only reason students are becoming increasingly interested in this discipline. 

“This generation is very different from the previous ones in the way that they look at employment,” says Mischel. “They want to do things on their own, they don’t want to be attached, they want to set their own hours, and they don’t like the idea of making money for someone else.”

Students interested in taking classes on entrepreneurship at Susquehanna can do so through the Sigmund Weis School of Business. While there is no entrepreneurship major, there is an emphasis that has four core course requirements. Students who choose to major in other areas can still join the newly-started Entrepreneurship Club. 

At WNEU, marketing and engineering students work together to turn ideas into real prototypes. Students then compete against one another to attend the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Innovation Showcase. Over the course of two semesters, 15 teams of WNEU students have developed eight provisional patents. 

“These are owned by the university and the university will take the best ideas to utility patent status and then attempt to sell the ideas for royalties,” says James McKeon, executive-in-residence at WNEU. “Each student creator gets five percent of the royalties after the college recoups expenses.”

Some of the products developed include: a bicycle-powered ultra-violet water purification system for third-world countries; a combination weed wacker/grass trimmer; a battery-powered pipe bender for AVC professionals; an improved breast lumpectomy surgical tool; an automatic turn signal for motorcycles; and a drill-bit sharpener.

“An entrepreneur’s success will greatly depend on the entrepreneurs’ ideas and not as a result of mastering specific learning outcomes,” says Sara Robicheaux, dean of business programs at Birmingham-Southern College (Ala.).  “However, a liberal arts education will enable an entrepreneur with a great idea to be successful.” 

Scott Willyerd is president of Dick Jones Communications, a media relations firm specializing in higher education.