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Do Schools Kill Entrepreneurship?

By Gerri Detweiler –

Lecture Hall“Do Schools Kill Creativity?” is one of the most popular TED Talks of all time. In his entertaining and provocative presentation, Sir Ken Robinson says (referring largely to the state of education today) that “..if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original. And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong.”

Robinson doesn’t address entrepreneurship directly in his talk, but plenty of other people question whether our educational system helps prepare students to run their own businesses, often against the backdrop of stories like that of Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg dropping out of college to start their businesses.

As one example, Andrew Yang wrote in Forbes, “Schools don’t tolerate failure. Our students can’t accept it. The best entrepreneurship course would give everyone who enrolls an F. Whoever takes it probably has the makings of a decent entrepreneur.”

He’s referring specifically to university-level entrepreneurship education programs, and goes on to say: “The best programs push students out of the classroom, get business people with real problems, and give strong teams an actual chance to launch and operate with access to real angel investors. Go out and get some customers.”

It’s fair to question whether schools are doing an adequate job to prepare entrepreneurs for the wide range of skills required to run a business. As a parent, I’ve been frustrated by the way my daughter’s education has often seemed to emphasize preparing her to pass standardized tests, which for the most part do have “right” and “wrong” answers. Like the many people who have watched and shared Robinson’s talk, I’ve wondered if we are doing a disservice to our students by failing to equip them to deal with real-life challenges, including those that come with self-employment or starting a venture from scratch.

Yet… research seems to indicate there is a positive relationship between education and entrepreneurship. For example:

• Studying microbusinesses (1-4 employees), researchers Evangelia Papadaki and Bassima Chami found that “growth is lower for businesses whose owners did not finish high school…. However, having had a college or university degree does not have a significant impact on venture growth.” – Evangelia Papadaki and Bassima Chami, Growth Determinants of Micro-Businesses in Canada, Small Business Branch, Industry Canada, 2002.)

• Another study found that “secondary and tertiary (post-secondary) education increase formal entrepreneurship as a consequence of the higher self-confidence, lower perceived risk and enhanced human capital…. By contrast, tertiary education has a negative effect on informal entrepreneurship. (Note: formal education refers to businesses that are legally registered while informal businesses refer to those not legally registered and largely unregulated) – Alfredo Jimenez, et. al, The Impact of Educational Levels On Formal And Informal Entrepreneurship, BRQ Business Research Quarterly Volume 18, Issue 3, July–September 2015.

• Another research report draws the conclusion that, “If more of our young people pursue post secondary education, we will improve the quality of our start-up businesses. – Small Business, Entrepreneurship, and Innovation, Institute for Competitiveness & Prosperity Working Paper 15, February 2012.

• Just over half (50.8%) of small business owners have a four-year degree, according to a a SurveyMonkey small-business survey. That’s greater than the 1 in 3 American adults who have at least a bachelor’s degree, according to the US Census.

Schools don’t appear to be killing entrepreneurship. Overall, the research seems to point to a positive relationship between education and entrepreneurship.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t do better. It’s entirely possible that changes to current education programs could help create a greater number of successful entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurs must develop myriad skills, and that starts with creating and delivering a good product or service that customers are willing to pay for. They need to handle (or hire someone to handle) marketing and sales, customer service, and managing a wide range of financial tasks like bookkeeping, building business credit and getting financing. Neglecting any of these vital tasks can sink a business, but they’re often lessons learned in the School of Hard Knocks.

Today, programs like Junior Achievement, the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), and The Diamond Challenge bring entrepreneurship education to students in middle school and high school. The National Consortium for Entrepreneurial Education promotes entrepreneurship education in grades K-12, providing advocacy and technical assistance.

At the college level, there is always the traditional MBA program. But an increasing number of colleges are also offering entrepreneurship education and/or degree programs; there are over 300 schools offering such programs in the US alone. And Yang, quoted above, founded Venture America, which places top college graduates in two-year fellowships at high growth startups. Many universities host Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs), which provide free and low-cost training and consulting for entrepreneurs of all ages and educational levels. While not exclusively for students, new resources are allowing entrepreneurs to continue educating themselves on the best small business practices, access financing, and check their business and personal credit scores, which you can do for free with Nav.

While Robinson’s findings may suggest that education discourages creativity, the numbers show that schooling is only helping new companies. With the resources available through universities and a growing number of people studying for degrees, entrepreneurship could be on the rise.


About the Author: Gerri serves as Head of Market Education for Nav, which provides business owners with simple tools to build business credit and access to lending options based on their credit scores and needs. She develops educational programs and content for small business owners, and works on advocacy initiatives. A prolific writer, her articles have been featured on popular websites such as Yahoo!, MSN Money,,,, Forbes, The Today Show website and many others.

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