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Higher Education on the Precipice: Why Entrepreneurship Matters More

Entrepreneurial leadership aims to turn problems into opportunities that create social and economic value; higher ed is ripe for this role.

2020 looks to be another disruptive year for higher education and the workplace.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports that nearly 250,000 fewer students were enrolled in college at the end of 2019 than in 2018, and Bloomberg Businessweek writes that future forecasts indicate a further decline in enrollment.

Higher education seems out of reach for some, raising doubts about the value of the traditional college degree. All this takes place while college operation costs are increasing. At the same time, state government funding for education has declined in the U.S., “particularly in general purpose support for institutions,” reports the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Given this environment, it is not surprising that the list of colleges that have merged or closed—Mount Ida College, Wheelock College, Green Mountain College, and more—continues to grow.

Disruption is not limited to higher education. Indeed, higher education may be a lagging indicator of a changing economy. The pace of change in the world and in the workplace is creating disruption in almost every industry. A 2019 McKinsey study reported that almost 40 percent of U.S. jobs are in occupations that are likely to shrink—though not necessarily disappear—by 2030.

In this time of disruption and change, when the world is more connected and complicated than ever, the need for education has never been greater. The “future of work”—which has become a grand title for how we see employment developing—creates an essential and growing need for learning across a lifetime. KPMG writes in Forbes that advances in fields like artificial intelligence and robotic process automation mean that half the millennial workforce is expected to find work in jobs that have yet to be created.

While technology skills are an important part of upskilling, the World Economic Forum notes an increasing demand by employers for human skills, such as creativity, flexibility, problem-solving, emotional intelligence, and leadership.

Chaos and ambiguity, an accelerating pace of change, unresolved societal problems, and disrupted industries create fertile ground for unconventional entrepreneurial leadership that can make an impact on higher education and our workforce.

Entrepreneurial leadership is a mindset that focuses organizations on turning problems into opportunities that create social and economic value.

Today’s era presents unprecedented opportunity for entrepreneurial leaders who are nimble, opportunity-driven, innovative, and growth-oriented.

We are already seeing leaders in education moving colleges beyond the model that merely offers degree programs. New York University, for example, is among those offering accelerated programs. Drury University features stackable credentials. The University of Calgary has embedded certificates within its academic program. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga is among the institutions creating new partnerships, such as a collaboration between its Center for Professional Education and the coding school Thinkful. Dublin City University has partnered with FutureLearn.com and has launched an online accredited short course on Fintech. Finally, Arizona State University’s Carey School of Business offers an accelerated MBA allowing applicants with a business-related master’s degree to complete an MBA in 12 months.

At Babson College, we have established the Babson Academy for the Advancement of Global Entrepreneurial Learning, where we offer an extensive portfolio of programs to develop faculty who can teach entrepreneurially, engage students in various boot-camp style programs, and convene universities to collaborate in building innovative entrepreneurship programming.

Additionally, with the vision and support of alumnus Arthur M. Blank, co-founder of The Home Depot, and in conjunction with The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, we are establishing the Arthur M. Blank School for Entrepreneurial Leadership. It will support numerous initiatives, including the development of an Entrepreneurial Leadership Village to expand and enhance dedicated space for collaborative learning and experimentation, experiential learning that offers real-world problem-solving opportunities, and funding for applied research that generates practical, actionable outcomes.

The time has come where we are seeing a move from the education model that merely provides degree programs to one that provides opportunities for lifetime education.

The new educational models currently being developed at entrepreneurial-centered institutions will create proven vehicles to benefit society that can be replicated around the world.

We know that living on the cutting edge in higher education is a challenge for all institutions and requires continuous leadership, planning, dedication, and innovation. The need is great. The challenge is huge. The rewards will be tremendous.


Stephen Spinelli Jr., President, Babson College Stephen Spinelli Jr. is president of Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts.