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Want To Be An Entrepreneur? Go To School

The hard-knock lessons of the worst economic downturn in 75 years have not been lost on tomorrow’s workers.

Leland Bobbe | Stone | Getty Images

In a bid to take control of their own careers, and avoid joining the unemployment line like their parents, college students today are actively seeking classes that can help them hone their entrepreneurial skills.

A 2011 study by U.K-based market research firm CarringtonCrisp found that entrepreneurship now ranks among the top five subject areas among MBA students in 79 countries. Last year, entrepreneurship ranked in the top ten.

"With ongoing problems in the banking and finance sectors, traditional sources of jobs for MBAs, more are looking to create their own future, encouraged further by continuing stories of success in the tech world,” says Andrew Crisp, co-founder of CarringtonCrisp.

In response to growing demand, colleges and universities are rolling out classes that cater to future business owners faster than you can say venture capital.

Emtrepreneurs Are Us

The number of business schools in the U.S. offering entrepreneurship classes has mushroomed to more than 2,000 from just 16 in 1970, while the number of undergraduate and graduate fulltime programs has risen to 2,335 over the last ten years, according to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

“One of our freshman students recently told me he saw his dad lose his job after 25 years and he said he would rather put his future in his own hands than in somebody else’s,” says Rebecca White, director of the Florida Entrepreneurship Center at the University of Tampa Sykes College of Business, which is introducing a new masters of science degree in global entrepreneurship.

“There’s a lot to be frustrated about right now with the economy and job market and you can either find ways to lash out at what’s going on or you can be proactive and find ways to work around it,” says White. “That’s the spirit of entrepreneurship.”

Not all who major in entrepreneurship go on to establish their own businesses, of course.

Some simply wish to cultivate the skills that will best position them for employment opportunities post graduation — ingenuity, improvisation, risk tolerance.

That’s particularly true for part-time MBAs, who are working and studying at the same time.

“The demand for creative solutions in their current careers, puts a premium on acquiring the mindset and skills of the entrepreneur," says Crisp.

Degrees in entrepreneurship typically include classes that help students identify viable business opportunities, develop feasibility studies and write a business plan.

The Florida Entrepreneurship Center, which offers both undergraduate and graduate level programs, also helps students discover their own passion and fine-tune the90-second elevator pitch.

Likewise, the Center for Entrepreneurship at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., teaches students about bootstrapping a start-up business, cash flow management, securing financing from friends and family, and the importance of social capital — building that critical network of relationships (bankers, suppliers, etc.) that will help sustain their business.

Avoiding Dilbert Land

An unprecedented 30 percent of incoming freshman at Belmont’s business school this year declared entrepreneurship as their major.

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“I had to double and triple check that number, because we’ve never seen anything higher than 10 percent,” says Jeff Cornwall, a professor at Belmont University and director of its Center for Entrepreneurship.

Historically, one-third of its students start a business before they graduate or immediately thereafter, another third enter an entrepreneurial venture as a key team member (but not necessarily the leader) and the last third enter the traditional job market.

This year, though, Cornwall says 40 percent of those pursing an entrepreneurial degree indicate they wish to start a business upon graduation, another 40 percent plan to join an entrepreneurial venture and 20 percent plan to enter the traditional job market.

“They don’t want to work in Dilbert land,” says Cornwall, referring to the cartoon character who is an engineer in a micro-managed office. “A lot of these kids have been raised not to get a corporate job and retire and win the gold watch, but to be self-reliant and make it on their own. They are independent minded and they think nothing of entrepreneurship being a career path. When I was doing that in the 1970s, it was considered a very strange career goal.”

Indeed,a 2011 Harris Interactive poll for the Kauffman Foundation reveals that 40 percent of youth ages eight to 24 would like to start a business at some future point, or already have done so.

As college students face one of the worst job markets in U.S. history, many are using their entrepreneurial inclinations to blaze a trail.

“It’s really about a different way of looking at the world,” says White. “This new generation of young men and women approach the world more cooperatively than competitively. They look at how they can have an impact on the world and make a change. They have a vision. It’s who they are.”