By January 25, 2011
Let’s pretend for one second that colleges were actually willing to do something like this. Since the great financial conflagration of 2007-’08, states have taken on massive debts, have threatened to cut budgets of higher education if the haven’t already, and even the wealthiest private colleges and universities have sustained large losses on their endowments, and high net worth individuals are increasingly hesitant to donate to their alma maters. With the student loan market threatening to collapse in a way similar to housing, it is clear that we can use the word “crisis” without sounding like overdramatic Fox News anchors.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from writing about student entrepreneurs and the difficulties facing them, it is this: they are in need of funding and expert mentorship. Those that start businesses are likely to look elsewhere for resources; in short, they leave college. I’m not questioning this. Given the lack of appropriate infrastructure within universities, they have no choice.

Now, I’m sure hordes of grumpy old men in tweed jackets collectively carp about the increasing focus on commerce in the classroom, about the decay of classic liberal arts dogma about Truth and Beauty, and all that jazz. What I say to that: grow up. Fact: for as long as a college degree is a prerequisite to entering into the workforce, the two will be linked. Instead of bemoaning the fall of “classic intellectual pursuit” (whatever…) I propose a more pragmatic approach. If you can’t beat the entrepreneurial spirit out of your students, foster it. Make the university a resource for more than just abstruse theory, a repository of dusty grey scholars of neo-Marxist hermeneutics or post-structuralist creative heuristics, or whatever else scholarly work consists of. Leverage the enthusiasm of students to, if nothing else, augment existing endowment funds.

So, if the problem is increasingly irrelevant curricula, and if students are sacrificing their academic performance to focus instead on entrepreneurship, and the looming wave-front of student lending’s collapse, the natural solution is to establish startup incubators purpose-built for the academic environment. This is not a new idea.

What do Genentech, Lycos, and many other large (or once-large) companies all have in common? They are the result of spinoffs from university research facilities. I am not saying that the average college entrepreneur is going to found a company as technical as the ones above, but I wouldn’t put it past one. It is difficult to make a good argument against universities taking small equity stakes when seeding student startups, instead of their current model, handing out grants and prize money, and in turn fostering these new ventures within the university, with all the theoretical support of the Ivory Tower and guidance, under the aegis of research faculty (especially handy for tech and biotech companies), business-school professors, MBA students, &c. The university incubator is here to stay.

From what I can see, there are a number of such incubator programs already at work in colleges nationwide. USC, Columbia, Arizona State University, Syracuse University, and others operate programs for entrepreneurs—undergraduate and graduate students—to build their ventures, try, and fail within the “safe space” that the university provides. That more top-tier universities don’t forego the no-strings-attached cash disbursement model of rewarding good ideas surprises me. It might be a way out of the ruin of the past few years, for both universities and students. The first is presented with a money making opportunity, as is the latter. But if students’ ventures fail they still get a degree. And one hell of a learning experience. For universities, it might be time to put their money where their mouths are. For their sake more than the students’.