A Brief Response to Paul Magelli’s “Entrepreneurial Education as a Third Pathway for Community Colleges” Is there a fourth pathway?

by John Lang / Aug 25, 2016

In a recent interview with OCCRL, Dr. Paul Magelli of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign shared his research on entrepreneurial education at the postsecondary level. The interview began with the following by OCCRL interviewer, Janice Li North:

Community colleges are typically known for their CTE and transfer offerings. Alongside these traditional pathways, however, courses, certificates and associate’s degrees in entrepreneurship point the way to a new and innovative kind of education, even a third pathway through community colleges.

The interview was important in two respects. First, it was a reminder that the way community college education is often framed—CTE or transfer—is not the only way it has to be framed. Community college does not need to be an either/or proposition. Second, Dr. Magelli offered a viable third path for community college students by way of an entrepreneurial education. This is both a revelation and, it seems, a story that may not be widely known even though he identified over 600 community colleges that offer a degree or certificate in entrepreneurship. Notably, his research highlights sophisticated programs across the country that offer courses in speech, ethics, law, leadership, and psychology, as well as help in areas like mentoring, networking, and even seed capital.

After reading the interview, I was inspired to offer a friendly reply that diverges from Dr. Magelli in some respects in order to amplify his insights on an entrepreneurial education. My hope is to offer a fourth pathway that is merely entrepreneurial education reconsidered. I want to begin at the end of the interview, where Dr. Magelli concludes with two views on the importance of entrepreneurship.

He first offers the following: “At the heart of a flourishing economy is business innovation, new firm creation, and successful ventures. These translate into a healthy mix of wealth creation, job creation, tax revenues, and a citizenry with a stake in the success of the economy and public policy.” On its own, the description emphasizes the wealth of a nation, the wellbeing of its citizenry, and the vital link of entrepreneurship.

Dr. Magelli then says something subtly but radically different: “I would say that an important dimension to entrepreneurship education, which we see in many corporations, is social responsibility: how to give back. This is more important than innovation or enterprise; it is the attention to the human condition.” To rephrase, at the heart of a flourishing economy is wealth creation, but at the heart of a flourishing society is civic responsibility and a concern for the human condition. Free markets and wealth creation cannot and will not (on their own) foster a healthy society. Society needs something more and something different.

This begs the question, can entrepreneurial education help to underwrite a healthy economy—which supplies goods and services, employs society, and contributes to the general coffers—and a healthy society, which demands more than these economic categories can provide? In my view, the answer is both “No” and “Yes.”

Based on Dr. Magelli’s description of programs around the country, the answer is “No,” in that entrepreneurial education appears to be an offshoot or relative of more traditional business education. To borrow from the car industry, the new model is built on an old chassis. Based on Dr. Magelli’s description of entrepreneurship as “social responsibility” and a commitment to the “human condition,” the answer is a resounding “Yes!” The problem seems to be that entrepreneurial education, as a business-oriented curriculum, does not seem to live up to fullness of its aspirations and possibilities.

What then does alignment look like? Perhaps the key is hidden in Dr. Magelli’s interview. At several points in the course of his career he has intersected with the Kauffman Foundation, including the present study, which was funded by the Foundation.  The key is not the Foundation, however, but the individual:  Ewing Marion Kauffman (1916–1993).

The story of Ewing Kauffman is part of entrepreneurial lore. The Foundation website tells his story in brief, including the decisive moment; “In 1950, his innately entrepreneurial spirit led him to start his own pharmaceutical company in the basement of his home.” This startup became the billion-dollar Marion Laboratories. From there, Mr. Kauffman owned a major league baseball team and established the Foundation, with two programmatic areas in education and entrepreneurship.

The overlooked part of his story is this: Mr. Kauffman’s highest level of formal education was from a local community college, Kansas City Junior College (now Metropolitan Community College). In 2015, Metropolitan memorialized Mr. Kauffman by noting that he “only” received an associate degree, and yet “he was able to go on to create a business that has touched everyone in Kansas City.” In short, he succeeded in spite of a community college education.

We know that community college horizons often reflect broader social and economic limitations. As Dr. Magelli reports, however, community college education can also be entrepreneurial as a way to surpass limits. What, then, is entrepreneurship? The life of Mr. Kauffman demonstrates that entrepreneurship is a spirit: the entrepreneurial spirit as vision, daring, leadership, resourcefulness, and a concern “to fundamentally change people’s lives.” This entrepreneurial spirit seems to move through all of his endeavors, from business to sports to philanthropy.

We might draw two conclusions from this combination, one direct and the other indirect.  First, the entrepreneurial spirit does not end in business.  Mr. Kauffman shows us that an entrepreneurial spirit can far exceed the confines of a business model.  Second, the entrepreneurial spirit does not need to begin in business. If we look to community colleges, some students, driven by an entrepreneurial spirit, want to fundamentally change people’s lives. Unlike Mr. Kauffman, however, these students do not want to build a business as the pre-requisite, nor do they think this is the only way to have a meaningful impact in the world.

Dr. Magelli seems to confirm this when he states, “Community colleges serve as the grassroots educational foundation by meeting student demand and providing them with the kind of entrepreneurial education that will prepare them to play a vital role in these many important aspects of society.” I wish to rephrase this with the following:  An entrepreneurial education means helping remove barriers by helping students to realize their entrepreneurial potential. It means combining their vision, leadership, and resourcefulness with the technical knowledge of corporate structuring, business planning, marketing, and finance.  And it means adding to this menu by way of studies in nonprofit management and grant writing, social justice, and social movements.  It means empowering students to venture out through a business in environmental technology, but also in a nonprofit for victims of domestic violence or a children’s theatre in a low-income neighborhood or an advocacy program for low-income tenants.

It seems fair to assume that Kansas City Junior College (ca. 1936) did not have Mr. Kauffman’s entrepreneurial spirit in mind, and so perhaps he did succeed in spite of his education.  But his story raises important questions. How many future Kauffmans are at community colleges today? What could they accomplish if their far-ranging entrepreneurial spirits were recognized, fostered, and empowered by community colleges? What would entrepreneurial education look like then, and what would truly be possible by way of cultivating an entrepreneurial spirit according to its highest aspirations?