Social Entrepreneurship Is Bringing Purpose To Higher Education

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Sorgente: Ashoka

Higher education in the United States is facing a crisis. The rising cost of tuition is often how this crisis is defined, but when we listen carefully to the discourse, a different issue emerges: students, parents and employers are all expressing doubt about the value of an undergraduate degree.

In response, innovators are trying to change the form and function of higher ed. The much-hyped Internet learning on MOOCs, the Thiel Fellowship’s $100,000 grant for students to drop out of college and pursue a passion, and Uncollege's assertion that students can “hack” higher ed learning all put the existing infrastructure of colleges and universities at risk. But these approaches miss a key point: The problem isn’t that higher education doesn’t have anything of value to offer (colleges are nothing if not mountains of world-class learning opportunities), but that students aren’t getting any of that value.

Students arrive on college campuses without the sense of purpose or direction they need to not only recognize, but also take advantage of the learning opportunities colleges offer. Their motivation for learning in high school was to get the grades and test scores they needed to get into college. Once accepted, what is their motivation? And, without motivation, is there anything driving their learning? This isn’t just about choosing a major. It’s about having a vision for what you want to learn, why you want to learn it, and what you are going to do with it in the real world.

Imagine what colleges would be like if students arrived on campus filled with burning questions that were meaningful to them and society.

Surrounded by college students, faculty, administrators, and innovators at the 2013 Ashoka U Exchange, one thing became clear to me: teaching social entrepreneurship is a key part of solving this problem. It makes sense. Entrepreneurs are defined by their sense of drive and determination, their willingness to fail and then try again, and their vision for applying their learning in productive ways. Those also happen to be the characteristics of great learners.

In recent weeks, this blog has highlighted the social entrepreneurs that received Cordes Awards at the Ashoka U Exchange. But here are some of the newer, less recognized programs that were in attendance that also represent the cutting edge of social entrepreneurship training. Each of them is notable for helping students develop a sense of purpose and direction that is grounded in creating social value through entrepreneurship. By getting students in the field, providing mentoring, and supporting their initiatives, these programs are helping students develop the sense of purpose and direction they need to fully take advantage of the enormous value their colleges offer.

  • ThinkImpact: Offering eight-week summer institutes, college students work with members of the host community to learn to assess critical local needs and develop a social enterprise solution. ThinkImpact offers program sites in Kenya, RwandaSouth Africa, and Ghana. Through partnerships with colleges including Northwestern University and University of San Diego, students can earn college credit for participating.
  • The Social Innovation Initiative at the Swearer Center at Brown University: By providing support to students and the campus around SII’s “four pillars”—academic connections, extra-curricular experiences, job and internship opportunities, and network building—the initiative is creating a broad based culture of social entrepreneurship on campus at Brown. Their programs include the C.V. Starr Social Entrepreneurship Fellowship, which includes extensive training, seed funding, and advising for young social entrepreneurs. The breadth of SII’s programming on campus ensures that all aspects of a social entrepreneur’s learning needs are met.
  • Middlebury Center for Social Entrepreneurship: The center offers Middlebury students a wide range of learning opportunities, including an annual symposium featuring the brightest stars of social entrepreneurship, summer grantsmulti-year fellowships, and the MLab, a weekly discussion for students learning about the challenges of social change leadership. Additionally, the center convenes leaders from college campuses around the U.S. to share their learning in social entrepreneurship in liberal arts education.

These programs truly represent the cutting edge of social entrepreneurship training. And, they’re only a few of the countless programs available to students on and off campus.

Students, seek these opportunities out! Find the sense of purpose and direction you need to gain real value from your college career. It’s programs like these that will ensure you and students for generations to come will take advantage of the incredible value higher education has to offer.

Editor’s note: This is the first post in the Ashoka U 2013 series on the Cordes Innovation Award Winners.  
Click here to read more posts in the Ashoka U- Cordes Innovation Awards series.