CHICAGO ( MainStreet) -- Any discussion of higher education inevitably comes back to money: the rising cost of tuition; the burdens of student loan debt; the budget cuts public universities are forced to make due to state funding shortfalls.
There is also a growing expectation that a college education should lead to real, measurable results. Learning for its own sake is all well and good, but today's students also want to know there will be a job waiting for them after graduation day. If not, they want the skills necessary to create their own opportunities -- which is why entrepreneurship training is such a hot trend on campus, expanding even as other disciplines are forced to cut back.
Promoting entrepreneurship doesn't just benefit students; it has very real pluses for educational institutions as well. Businesses created on campus as a direct result of university investment can pay off financially through licensing fees and royalties. Such initiatives also encourage donations from business-minded alumni and bring academic programs out of the proverbial ivory tower and into the real world, making the university a more integral part of the community.
Then there's the bonus that entrepreneurship programs don't tend to require much from cash-strapped university budgets. They are often established and financed much like a start-up business, through private funding from alumni donors (the educational equivalent of angel investors). Whatever the financial pressures on a university as a whole, all it takes is one or two committed alumni to get an entrepreneurship center up and running.
At the University of Utah, for example, a business school alum donated more than $13 million to fund what is now the Pierre Lassonde Entrepreneur Center; almost 4,000 students took part in its programs during the 2011-12 school year. L. William Crotty, a 1952 University of Dayton graduate, has donated more than $5 million to his alma mater's business school, including an endowment to fund the L. William Crotty Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership. Such examples can be found at universities all over the country; graduates who have been successful in business and want to pay it forward find that funding training for the next generation of business innovators is a worthy goal.
Since so many of these centers are built through private endowments, they are somewhat protected from campus budget shortfalls, though their leaders also have to pursue additional corporate funding to keep things running. This fundraising, in turn, can build bonds between the entrepreneurship center and local businesses, encouraging formal and informal connections that ultimately strengthen both parties.
Indeed, one of the benefits of a thriving entrepreneurship program is that it can build ties not only in the community, but on campus. At many large universities, students and faculty are segregated by discipline, with science and engineering majors spending most of their time in labs liberal-arts students never see. A program that encourages everyone to pursue innovation -- regardless of major -- can bring a cross-pollination that benefits everyone. Grad-student engineers can meet up with biz-school marketing whizzes to polish a written proposal; undergrads who have an idea for a new children's video game can solicit advice from an education professor.
The Owen Entrepreneurship Center at Vanderbilt University makes those ties a key part of its pitch, noting to prospective students that the university's graduate schools are all within a five-minute walk of each other; Vanderbilt entrepreneurship students also work and attend events at the Entrepreneur Center in Nashville, providing, as the university's website puts it, "a vital link between the academic world and the real world of start-ups."
At the University of Michigan, the Samuel Zell and Robert H. Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies also promotes its interdisciplinary model, serving as a university-wide resource rather than simply a segment of the business school. The result is what the center leaders refer to as a "holistic" approach, one that brings together students and professors in engineering, business, medicine and law.
A study released this summer by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation examined technology commercialization at eight large U.S. universities, looking for the key factors that led to successful idea-to-market transitions. The authors found that elements of a strong entrepreneurship program -- mentoring, business-plan competitions, on-campus business accelerators -- greatly increase the chances of success.
In a results-driven society, universities are being called on to prove their worth. Those that can boast of a thriving, interdisciplinary entrepreneurship culture will be using it as a recruitment tool for years to come.