College entrepreneurship programs expand

NYC universities see a spike in enrollments for studies focusing on how students can launch and manage their own businesses.

Colleges have often provided fertile ground for innovation: Facebook was founded by Harvard classmates, Google by Ph.D. students and Napster by a freshman at Northeastern. Even FedEx was born of an economics term paper.

With the job market lagging, success stories like these are boosting interest in entrepreneurship among college students. Colleges and universities nationwide offer more than 5,000 courses on the subject, compared with just 250 in 1985, according to a report from the Kauffman Foundation, an organization that promotes small business formation in the U.S. And in the Big Apple, where many are looking to the startup sector for economic growth, colleges have found a growing demand for entrepreneurial studies.

“Young people today want to invent and create things,” says Jerry Hultin, president of the Polytechnic Institute of New York University.

NYU Poly has added a slew of entrepreneurship courses over the past three years, according to Bruce Niswander, the school's director of innovation, technology transfer and entrepreneurship. This year, the school is launching a Freshman Forum through which students can attend lectures by celebrity innovators. And NYU Poly joined the city in February to open a business incubator on Varick Street, which houses 27 startup companies.

The rest of NYU is making similar strides. Last fall, the school debuted a 12-week Innovation & Entrepreneurship Lab for students, faculty and alumni. NYU is adding to its Entrepreneurship Learning Forums this year, and it's developing an eight-week seminar series titled “Reinventing Yourself as an Entrepreneur,” geared primarily at alumni.

The array of new courses geared toward small, startup enterprises serves an important need within the broader business category.

“There are more students sitting in business classes saying, ‘I understand how that works for Pfizer and IBM, but how does it work for me?' ” says Jeffrey Carr, executive director of the Berkley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at NYU's Stern School of Business. Entrepreneurship is Stern's most popular specialization after finance.

NYU even commissioned a study last year on how to train prospective entrepreneurs. Preliminary results found that students in any major were more likely to pursue entrepreneurial activities if they had worked with professors outside the classroom and had been required to develop solutions to real-world problems.

“Entrepreneurship, if it cannot be taught, certainly can either be supported or not supported from an educational point of view,” says Jeffrey Simonoff, professor of statistics at NYU and one of the authors of the study.

At Baruch College, part of the City University of New York system, more than 500 students currently major in entrepreneurship.

“It's one of the biggest majors in the college,” says Edward Rogoff, a professor and the former director of the Field Center for Entrepreneurship at Baruch. “Ten years ago, it was one course I taught, with two students in it.”

Baruch came in ninth in a ranking of the country's 25 most entrepreneurial colleges and universities published last month by Princeton Review and Entrepreneur magazine. No other New York institution made the list.

In addition to offering a major in entrepreneurship, Baruch has a minor for undergraduates, as well as an M.B.A. in the subject for students of the Zicklin School of Business. This year, the school launched a master's degree in entrepreneurship, a one-year program geared to owners of existing small businesses.

At Columbia University's Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center, part of the Columbia School of Business, administrative director Laura Lee says enrollment in entrepreneurship classes is up.

Outside the classroom, Columbia offers the Entrepreneurial Sounding Board and Entrepreneurial Greenhouse programs, which allow students to refine their business plans with the help of faculty and professionals. The school's Lang Fund makes investments in graduating students' fledging businesses, and Columbia is planning a program that would place students as summer interns at startup firms.

Though many students have been prompted to reconsider their career prospects because of layoffs in fashion, media and finance, academics credit startup standouts like Google with making entrepreneurship cool among the college set.

“People are beginning to think small can be powerful,” says NYU Poly's Mr. Hultin.