My college experience was critical in the development of me as an entrepreneur. But why was none of this value measured and recognized in my degree?
College campuses in the United States are like mini cities. They have all the moving parts of any functioning society – housing (residence halls), restaurants (dining halls), policy makers (administration), businesses (bookstores and cafés), laws (campus police), “work” (classes), and, most importantly, a community (students, faculty and staff). Because of their dynamic and fast-paced context, college campuses are arguably the best place to execute on an entrepreneurial idea before heading off into the “real world.”
Universities: a land of opportunity
At my alma mater in the US, the State University of New York at Geneseo, there are countless opportunities for entrepreneurs to take advantage of including entrepreneurial training programs, sponsorship for accepted Clinton Global Initiative University students1, ambassadorship grants, participation in the New York Business Plan Competition, starting a student organization on campus, and even speaking on the TEDx stage. Every single one of these opportunities has the potential to propel students’ ideas forward while developing their soft, social, and life skills. As a ‘studentpreneur’ who took advantage of all of these, I am truly thankful for my university’s support in these engagements.
Giving ‘credit’ where credit is due
However, I must beg the question – why are these challenges and support programs not provided to students along their path to earning a degree? Every program mentioned above helped to train me, the entrepreneur, and they were collectively the most valuable and rewarding parts of my college career.
So why did none of these projects, none of the awards or acceptances, and none of these incredible challenges count toward my final degree? Why did I not receive credit for pitching a business idea to a panel of investors, writing a fifty-page business plan, working with a team of 4 students and winning award money at competitions?
Investing in your degree
In the US, we pay an incredibly high price for our degree in the hope that it will help us qualify for a job so we can earn enough to pay back the cost… and hopefully more!
But what happens if you don’t take a job upon graduation? What if you make one instead? Does your degree mean anything then? Sure, it’s a great back-up. But I can’t help but be puzzled that the biggest challenges and opportunities for growth in my college career, which were directly supported by my university, had zero impact on me graduating. I still had to take all of the traditional courses and earn passing scores to receive credit towards my degree.
Looking back & looking forward
Looking back, I am thankful to have had mentors, advisors, friends, and the internal motivation needed to push me towards and through all of these opportunities. But what if I didn’t? What if I followed a path in college that took me to my degree the fastest? Would I have graduated and just taken a job? Would the development of me, the entrepreneur, have been stifled? Maybe.
Students are the lifeblood of any university setting. Given that many future jobs will have to be created by students themselves, the 2040 university landscape desperately needs to cater to the studentpreneur. Programs for developing entrepreneurial thinking and acting should be offered to all university students and entrepreneurial programs must be incorporated into credits toward earning a degree. Universities will need to get creative in transitioning from a strict ‘credit per course’ system to truly understand (and credit) the value of entrepreneurial endeavours on and off the college campus.
My Dream Campus
As an entrepreneur I’ve never been asked for my GPA. So why did I stress about it for four years? I could have been using that energy toward learning new skills instead of trying to obtain high exam scores.
I see a learning environment where students can create, test, and experience without restriction. Sure, there will be some courses on hard skills that you can only learn through books and traditional learning, but I see collaboration among students at the forefront.
Just as students studying medicine are part of the volunteer team responding to medical emergencies on campus, students should be part of managing all services provided to students. Whether that be part of food service and sales, retail shops on and off campus, or even providing freelance services like graphic design work.
As our world becomes more advanced, so does the severity of our problems. As I described before, we’re living in a mini city. It is the perfect setting to test new ideas without fear of “real world” failure. Now, more than ever, students need to identify these problems and take action.
So, do we need to eliminate grades completely? Not necessarily. But students should be evaluated on results and learning rather than success and failure.
I have high hopes for the university landscape in 2040. One where we don’t see entrepreneurs as college-dropouts, but rather one where we cultivate them as forward thinkers and great assets.
1The Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) Network is a consortium of colleges and universities that support, mentor and provide seed funding to innovative and entrepreneurial students.
For his work in the movement, Fairtrade International named Ben Conard one of 2016’s Top 10 Biggest Fairtrade Advocates in the World and #1 in the U.S. His passion for fair trade has taken him to the TEDx stage at his university and on-theground to fair trade farms in Ecuador and artisan workshops in India. As a US Ambassador for the 33rd Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange 2016-’17, the US Department of State awarded Ben ‘Fellow of the Month’ in April 2017 for his commitment to Entrepreneurship in Germany. During his time there, Ben was the German National Champion for the 2017 Global Student Entrepreneur Awards. Dedicated to great taste, consumer health, and sustainable sourcing, Ben, then a student, founded Five North Chocolate, a company supporting cocoa farmers around the world by creating deliciously nutritious chocolate snacks.