The other dimension to university’s economic development

Universities have long been seen as key elements in local economic development activities. But most (if not all) of the attention has been focused on the tech-transfer aspect: what new tech ideas are generated and then passed out to the local economy either as patents/license or professor’s business spin offs. But this quote from a story about Missouri Southern State University show another dimension to the interaction – and another area of innovation that is often overlooked by policy makers.

“A business school is an important economic-development tool for any community looking to expand its employment base, and have high quality employees to provide for new businesses opening and the expansion of existing businesses,” [School of Business Dean Brad] Kleindl said. “We’ve been able to more fully embrace the vision of helping students move into the job market and helping the economic development in the region. Over the last three years, the faculty has been able to step up their role, not only with students, but with the business community.”

Too often the educational and training activities of our colleges and universities are overlooked in the economic development process. Policymakers focus on world-class research facilities and not the local training activities.
However, at one level training and business preparation has become a hot area: in the community colleges. According to a 2004 study:

Entrepreneurship education in community colleges is growing throughout the United States. . . . The number of course sections has doubled in then years and more than 60% of American community colleges offer at least one course in Small Business or Entrepreneurship

This increased attention to entrepreneurship is a welcome occurrence. And it extends to major universities as well. I am told that the MIT Entrepreneurship Center is the hottest spot in Cambridge now days. Of course, the MIT emphasis is on technology-based entrepreneurship. Down the road at Babson College, entrepreneurship has a long history. There the curriculum includes technological entrepreneurship but is much broader. Countless other universities have their own form of entrepreneurship studies, including non-technological entrepreneurship and innovation.
However, there is still much more to be done to infuse entrepreneurship studies into the higher education system. In part, we need a better differentiation between “small business” and “entrepreneurship.” The mechanics of running/managing a small business are not the same as founding and growing a business based on a new idea. They are different enough with different skills that they need to be treated separately.
As Eric Pages of Entreworks Consulting points out is an article aimed at community college trustees:

Effective entrepreneurship education is not just about starting a business. It also teaches creative thinking, opportunity recognition, financial literacy, and the ability to understand and manage risk. These are important for all students, not just budding business owners.

Very well said. Maybe the development of these broader skills in the citizenry (and workforce) will turn out to be the most important contribution of our higher education system to local economic development.

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