A college education is a wonderful thing. Unfortunately for entrepreneurs, attending a four-year university also carries some significant drawbacks. The latest data on student loan debt from Debt.org tells a grim story for new graduates: The average debt at graduation is now more than $37,172 per student.
Related: Does a College Degree Still Matter?
For anyone entering the job market, a college degree is simply the price of admission. Entrepreneurs, however, need more than a piece of paper; they need relevant, hands-on skills they can use to succeed in the real world. For new and established founders, getting the most out of a college education — or developing the skills needed after graduation — becomes a serious advantage once the competition heats up.
What’s not working anymore
Students today don’t learn the same way they did 20 years ago. In decades past, students accepted that listening to lecturers drone on about theory was just part of the learning process. Today, however, students want opportunities to do more: They want to engage with the subject matter in practical ways. For this reason, lectures don’t offer the return on investment they once did; aspiring entrepreneurs are left feeling the need for something more to prepare for the open market.
Further, student loan debt prevents many of them from crossing the starting line because, while they might have great ideas, they have to jump into the job market to start making payments. For many, the dream of entrepreneurship is dead before it begins.
How higher education is responding
Fortunately, universities are no longer deaf to the needs of today’s students. An example is the program I founded: UMSL Accelerate is an initiative at the University of Missouri–St. Louis that offers entrepreneurial certificates. The classes needed to earn a certificate teach students everything from soft skills to running lean financials.
We know that not every student will start a business; however, the program will develop better professionals overall. The teachers are entrepreneurs themselves, people with the clout to provide real-life wisdom to the next generation. This offers an opportunity for students of all majors and degree levels the chance to explore their independent streaks.
Other universities are also responding by offering similar degree supplements and giving students chances to stretch their entrepreneurial muscles in a risk-free environment, giving them the skills they need to grow their own companies.
For instance, Boston College hosts its annual Elevator Pitch Competition, where teams prepare 60-second business pitches for a panel of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. Similarly, the school’s Venture Competition promotes and supports entrepreneurship at the school. A business-plan competition, moreover, is supported by alumni and faculty who offer students guidance along the way. Students present their ideas to a panel of executives and entrepreneurs, and the winners receive $15,000 to start up their business.
Finally, to accommodate for the shifting educational structure, universities are shifting their development priorities: As Alexandra Lange wrote in the New York Times,“Where once the campus amenities arms race was waged over luxury dorms and recreation facilities, now colleges and universities are building deluxe structures for the generation of wonderful ideas . . . pouring millions into new buildings for business, engineering and applied learning that closely resemble the high-tech workplace.”
A crash course for new entrepreneurs
Aspiring startup founders can enroll in whichever program provides the best hands-on experience, while postgraduate entrepreneurs who feel they missed out can still learn more about running a business. Take notes on these three strategies:
1. Invest in a mentor. Don’t overfocus on solving an internal problem, yourself, and forget to leverage outside resources. Bring in third-party voices to weigh in on new ideas and gather been-there-done-that advice. There’s a reason why 80 percent of CEOs in one survey said they’d received mentorship: Mentors help entrepreneurs move the needle. According to research from Sage, 93 percent of leaders in a survey said mentorship was instrumental in their business’s success.
When you’re ready to ask someone to mentor you, schedule a face-to-face conversation. I recommend blocking off about an hour — you don’t want the conversation to be rushed, and you want ample time to describe your goals. During the conversation, make sure to clearly describe the kind of guidance you’re seeking, and clearly articulate your own willingness to do the necessary follow-through. Above all, respect your mentor’s time: He or she is likely a busy individual, as well.
Additionally, partner with other local entrepreneurs and community organizations to establish a stronger presence in the area. Work alongside people with complementary goals to get new perspectives on how to succeed.
2. Join a club. Humans are inherently social creatures. Luckily, the startup world is a social one. Don’t isolate yourself unnecessarily; find new opportunities to collaborate in your community. For instance, every Thursday, CIC St. Louis hosts its Venture Café Gathering. Local entrepreneurs and innovators gather to network, collaborate and simply chat about what they’re up to. When socializing, make sure you have an intention and a purpose. Look for connections and ways to activate your entrepreneurial journey.
Networking events might sound like they’re for people looking for jobs, but many entrepreneurs attend fairs to promote their companies and form mutually beneficial partnerships. As Bryce Keane, co-founder of London-based startup event organizer 3beards, told The Economist: “If you don’t have an ecosystem of people you can tap into for support — to help out with, say, finding talent or just making contacts — it’s 20 to 30 times harder to get your business off the ground.”
For more daily interaction, consider moving to a co-working space, which real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle determined is the fastest-growing type of innovation space in the United States, to rub shoulders with other startup owners and make potentially valuable connections. Or, perhaps get involved with an accelerator program, where you can gain valuable insights from experienced business leaders and investors to bring your idea to life quickly.
3. Put down the books. Not many universities give students opportunities to grow their soft skills, although entrepreneurial programs are beginning to change that. Yet, as we enter the next industrial revolution, soft skills are becoming even more closely tied to success.
According to the World Economic Forum, complex problem-solving, creativity, emotional intelligence and negotiation will be among the most in-demand skills by 2020. And that makes sense: Managing a team, navigating funding pitfalls and learning to survive unexpected obstacles are key skills for every well-rounded founder.
You won’t learn how to be creative, in a book. The best way to learn is to practice. Switch up your work environment, and encourage daily brainstorm sessions with your teammates. Get into uncomfortable situations on purpose — not by antagonizing team members, but by leaving your fears at the door. Make more pitches to investors. Try new things, such as adding a new service option or expanding into a new market. Swing for the fences by booking a gig as a speaker.
For entrepreneurs, college is more than paying for a piece of paper. It’s an opportunity to learn skills that in the past would have been exclusive to real-world experience. Aspiring entrepreneurs must take advantage of the programs available to them, while seasoned veterans can follow these continuing education strategies to learn on the job.