Motivation and Outcomes Measurement of University Entrepreneurship Programs
A few weeks ago, the Kauffman Foundation released a report on university entrepreneurship education. I want to discuss a couple of points about the university’s motivation for supporting these kinds of curricula, programs, and events, and how it relates to measuring outcomes and implications for funders.
Part of the report speaks to measurement issues in university entrepreneurship education, and points out that measures commonly do not address the value added by the education. To state that twenty students went through a program, and fifteen went on to work in startups (either starting their own or joining others) does not address the counterfactual of what the students would have done without the program’s intervention. There needs to be a reliable comparison group against which to benchmark.
However, as the report discusses, these kinds of economic outcomes—startups created, jobs created, funding received, etc.—may not be the most important for universities. The report hints at a distinction I’d like to expand on—the difference between university entrepreneurship programs, whose primary purpose is for education, and between non-university programs, whose primary mission is more akin to directly increasing success and business outcomes.
Two years ago, I worked on a project conducting semi-structured qualitative interviews with faculty, students, and university officials involved in commercializing spinoffs from university technologies. We learned that many faculty were very concerned about allowing their students to be involved in spinoffs and sought to shield students from doing so if they felt it interfered with the student’s education. I have subsequently heard this sentiment echoed almost universally by faculty—not necessarily outright fear of entrepreneurship, but the desire to put education first. It makes sense to me then to think that university entrepreneurship programs have institutionally ingrained in them the ‘education first’ mantra, or at least more so than non-university programs.
For those faced with a choice of whether or not to support or fund an entrepreneurship education program, this distinction is critical. I’m speaking to university decision makers; individual non-profits; local government; state government; federal government; for-profit investors/sponsors. Key outcomes for university programs are different than those for non-university programs. Universities can be significant players in their regional economies but are naturally limited by their focus on education rather than direct economic outputs. It is true that some arms of the university (in particular the technology transfer offices) are more focused on generating economic outcomes, but as a whole the university exists for education purposes. If new business formation and job creation is the desired effect, funders and policy makers should recognize that university programs focused on promoting learning will hopefully have indirect effects on economic outcomes, but only maybe and perhaps over long time periods, as this is not their immediate focus. As the report documents, universities deal with a much more fragmented entrepreneurial landscape. They face a diverse student body and a diverse makeup of different colleges and institutions within the university, all with varied motivations and reasons for participating in entrepreneurship. Universities will be glad to report the successes of their entrepreneurial students, but we should perhaps not force the expectation that universities will make this the primary goal of their entrepreneurship education programs.
This does not mean that university entrepreneurship education programs should receive a free pass from serious outcomes measurement, and that funders and policy makers should abdicate responsibility to monitor them. As the report documents, we have seen an explosion in the number of offerings in the past decade. But we still have little systematic evidence for what works and what does not. We have high-level understandings and suspicions—“mentors are important;” “connecting people is important;” “no one-size fits all approach works”—and we have examples of centers and programs that have worked for one university or the other, but we do not have a strong understanding of what exactly makes a difference. To build off the report’s discussion, I argue that no matter what the desired outcome for university entrepreneurship programs, programs should build control groups to compare outcomes between students that go through the programs and students that do not. These control groups must account for the student’s choice to actually go through a program. Only then will we begin to understand the true effects of these programs.