Column: Entrepreneurial mindset can benefit first-gen students

I can still vividly recall the moment: I had downloaded the wrong statistics midterm my first semester at Princeton and received a zero. As I pleaded with my professor, he leaned back in his chair and placed his bare feet on his desk directly in my line of sight.

In his 20 years of teaching, he stated, no other student had made my mistake and I would have to live with the outcome. For a first-generation student, plagued with self-doubt, it was a jarring moment that heightened my sense of isolation and alienation – familiar feelings for many first-gen, low-income students at prestigious colleges.

Selective colleges across the country are increasingly opening their doors to wider swaths of ambitious students. First-generation students currently make up a third of all college students, and the American Talent Initiative, a consortium of over 270 highly selective college and universities, has the goal of enrolling 50,000 more high-achieving students with significant financial need by 2025.

To address the unique challenges of first-gen and low-income students, colleges have increasingly shifted their focus from making students college-ready to becoming student-ready through supportive policies, processes and practices that improve services and reduce barriers to success. Colleges have created first-gen student support centers and robust mentoring programs. Predictive models now flag at-risk students. Newly-hired administrators, many first-gen themselves, provide advocacy and agency, and institutions have developed academic courses to help students understand and navigate the impenetrable customs and norms of elite institutions.

Yet missing from these initiatives is a critical element for maximizing opportunities in exclusive environments, both academically and professionally, now and in the future: an entrepreneurial mindset.

Defined as a willingness to take intelligent risks and resiliency in the face of challenges, this mindset is a set of attributes integral to helping students develop an orientation toward action and value creation.

According to a recent survey of higher education administrators, the most important factors driving their institutional offerings for first-generation students were retention, degree completion and academic performance. All of these are necessary yet insufficient drivers of success in a world in which 47 percent of today’s jobs will be gone in 10 years and a third of recent college grads are underemployed.

Higher education’s solutions lack the ambition needed to address a stark reality: For many first-gen, low-income students, particularly black men, just getting through college is not enough to progress up the socio-economic ladder. In addition to metrics important to national rankings, colleges should emphasize and prioritize the development of a broader set of skills needed for success in today’s global economy.

One promising avenue to help students develop an entrepreneurial mindset (and its non-cognitive qualities of perseverance, self-efficacy and social skills) is to harness the burgeoning entrepreneurship movement on college campuses. Fueled by student interest, alumni support and market forces, colleges have increasingly embraced the pedagogical value of entrepreneurship as a skillset applicable across professional domains. Unfortunately, access to these programs remains uneven and at some institutions are perceived as antithetical to the aspirations of a liberal arts education. As a result, these resources are often leveraged narrowly for the few rather than broadly for the many.

Entrepreneurship programs in higher education foster personal development, empathic thinking, creativity and intelligent risk taking — all skills in high demand by employers and integral for activating opportunities within our most challenged communities. Hands-on learning experiences that encourage awareness of strengths, creation of values and trigger the development of entrepreneurial competencies should be integral to the first-generation student experience. Follow-up discussions can make explicit the transferability of these skills to landing internships, expanding networks and advancing professional success.

Awarded a coveted spot on college campuses, first-gen students deserve more than a lay of the land; they deserve the tools needed to explore and unearth the vast opportunity they contain. This will not be their last time navigating culturally and socially foreign environments and they will be better served if colleges move their goal post from providing access to opportunity to empowering students to create it.

Yusuf Dahl is the Bradbury Dyer director of innovation and entrepreneurship at Lafayette College in Easton.

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