Entrepreneurial studies taking root at historically black colleges


Entrepreneurial programs are gaining traction at historically black colleges and universities across the country, including here at Howard University. (Marvin Joseph/WASHINGTON POST)

Howard University’s School of Business has long offered courses in starting, running and managing a company. Many of its students have taken advantage of the school’s certificate program in entrepreneurship, while others have tapped the resources available through the department’s small business development center.

But in recent years, faculty and administrators realized that business students were no longer the only ones who need to know how to run a business, nor were they the only ones actively seeking that type of training.

“Our students have always been interested in entrepreneurship, but I feel like it really exploded over the last five years, and now it’s all over campus,” said Barron Harvey, dean of the School of Business at Howard, one of more than 120 historically black colleges and universities in the United States. “In particular, I think we are seeing more collaboration between different schools and departments on campus, where students in various fields of study want to learn how to be an entrepreneur. And it’s not just at Howard, I think that’s happening at schools like ours all across the country.”

The business school now partners with Howard’s schools of medicine, dentistry, pharmacy and divinity to offer dual degree programs for students who may eventually want to launch their own enterprises. Meanwhile, at the undergraduate level, the university has introduced an entrepreneurship minor available to students of any major, and in the past few years, the nursing program and the communications department have added formal entrepreneurship programs catering to their own students.

Harvey is right, too – the pattern extends well beyond Howard. Driven by a shift in the career outlook of today’s youth and accelerated by an economic downturn that continues to hit minorities the hardest, historically black colleges and universities are turning to entrepreneurship programs to help them churn out not just the nation’s next generation of employees, but also produce many of its future employers.

While the current economic decline has weighed heavily on all new graduates, government data suggest that black job candidates are having an even more difficult time finding work than their white counterparts. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2007, prior to the collapse, the unemployment rate among whites stood at 4.1 percent while the rate for blacks averaged 8.3 percent.

Fast forward five years, and the gap has widened further. The most recent data show that 7.3 percent of whites (a 3.4 point increase) and 14.0 percent of blacks (a 5.7 percent increase) of blacks are now unemployed. Moreover, the recession drove the wealth gap between whites and minorities to its widest margin in a quarter century, according to a study by Pew Research. 

“Everybody who went to college the last four years isn’t going out and getting a job, because those jobs aren’t there anymore,” Julianne Malveaux, president of Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C., said during a recent White House summit on entrepreneurship at historically black and minority serving institutions. Bennett recently launched a summer entrepreneurship program for local high-school students, and in May, the school will graduate its first student with an entrepreneurship minor.

Not far from Howard, Bowie State University has taken a different path to encouraging entrepreneurship, launching the Bowie Business Innovation Center in the fall of 2011. Housed at the business school, the non-profit incubator brings in start-ups that are subsequently encouraged to offer internships to students.

The school plans to soon begin offering some of that incubator space to student-run businesses, according to Anthony Nelson, dean of the business school, who also said the university hopes to introduce entrepreneurship major and minor programs in the next couple of years. Those plans are being hastened, he said, by students’ increasing demand for courses and programs designed to help them launch their own businesses.

“There has been a push for about the last five years, so this goes back further than the recession” Nelson said. “But the economy has probably accelerated the process and put a renewed emphasis on the need for entrepreneurship. Our students definitely understand the value of leaving here with the skills needed to create their own jobs.”

Follow On Small Business and J.D. Harrison .

J.D. Harrison covers startups, small business and entrepreneurship, with a focus on public policy, and he manages the Post's On Small Business blog.
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