How business schools could lead the charge to revive faith in higher education

As US higher education faces a drop in student numbers, business schools could help transform universities into the cross-disciplinary experiential learning hubs needed today, write Ahmad Al Asady and Siri Terjesen


North Dakota State University,Florida Atlantic University
14 Jul 2023
bookmark plus
  • Top of page
  • Main text
  • More on this topic
Business student presents to her peers

You may also like

Embedding social impact considerations into business programmes
Advice on how to get business school students engaging with wider societal issues as part of their programmes

The college enrolment crisis in the US, worsened by pandemic, has led to significant declines in the number of students attending higher education institutions. Limited resources, rising tuition rates, drops in public funding and scepticism about the value of a college education all present challenges. Business schools have a catalytic potential to help universities navigate this landscape by transforming them into hubs of practical, cross-disciplinary experiential education.

Consider the scenario of an engineering student armed with a revolutionary idea. If this student is also equipped with business acumen, they can evolve from an innovator in the lab to an entrepreneur with a market-ready product. This transformation illustrates the compelling power of interdisciplinary learning – a fusion of creative thought and commercial pragmatism. This environment of cross-disciplinary collaboration and knowledge-sharing culture unlocks potential transformations for students across all disciplines. For example, art and music majors can invest their talents in developing entrepreneurial careers, and public policy students could explore market-based solutions to global challenges. Empowered with a comprehensive skill set, these students will be prepared to make strategic, informed decisions leading to personal and economic success.

Here are three strategic actions to spearhead such cross-disciplinary experiential learning:

1. Specialised commercialisation training

Distinct from conventional entrepreneurship courses, commercialisation courses focus on translating innovative ideas into market-ready products or services, and should be open to all students, with an emphasis on engineering, science and arts majors. Although typically housed in a business school, commercialisation can be co-taught (or guest-lectured) with non-business faculty who have successfully commercialised ideas. University technology transfer leaders could lead a course unit, sharing their expertise.

Such courses could be offered within existing schedules, for example with a semester-long project where students develop a comprehensive business plan for an invention or innovative service. However, the high degree requirements for some majors such as engineering mean that shorter block week(s) during a term break, such as the mid-winter session, could be a better fit for students’ with busy term-time schedules. Another possibility is on-campus affinity housing open to all students interested in commercialisation, with special lectures and activities offered as a component of student life.

2. High-impact experiential opportunities

Experiential learning opportunities provide practical, hands-on experiences in cross-disciplinary environments. These initiatives often emerge organically, such as American University’s student-run, non-profit Davenport “Dav” Lounge coffee shop located in the lobby of the School of International Service. More recently, Saxbys Coffee, a certified B Corp, has established 15 student-run on- or near campus coffee shops, partnering with universities to offer paid leadership internships, experiential learning microcredentials, and a structured corporate mentorship and support programme. This activity involves students from business, hospitality, culinary arts and other disciplines acquiring a wealth of practical knowledge in running a business.

Other examples of cross-campus experiential learning include:

  • study competitions open to students from all fields, often bringing together cross-disciplinary teams to tackle real business challenges
  • student-led consultancies offering pro bono services to local small businesses, which provide students an opportunity to apply theoretical knowledge to real-world challenges
  • student-managed investment funds that handle real-world portfolios spanning real estate, stocks and venture capital, and through which students from diverse majors acquire useful knowledge in finance, entrepreneurship and innovation, which they can leverage throughout their careers.

These consultancy and investment activities can also help stimulate local community growth by channeling expertise and funds into local start-ups and businesses. Business schools play a crucial role as coordinators in such cross-disciplinary initiatives. Business school faculty and staff can leverage their expertise to oversee and guide such competitions, consultancies and investment funds.

3. Strategic partnerships for real-world learning experiences

By collaborating with local businesses, business schools can lead university efforts to offer real-world project opportunities to students across different disciplines. This could include internships and work placements in which students from different fields gain hands-on experience. Alternatively, businesses could present real-life challenges, like a tech start-up introducing a new product, which calls for a cross-disciplinary student team to develop an innovative marketing strategy.

A business school can act as the facilitator by fostering relationships with local businesses, understanding their needs and aligning them with the skill set of students across the university. This way, the business school becomes the connecting thread that weaves together theoretical learning and practical application.

One example is the medical device company Arthrex, which partners with Clemson University, Florida Gulf Coast University and the University of Florida to offer certificate programmes and three credit courses in sales and marketing of medical products.

These three cross-disciplinary, experiential learning strategies enable business schools to drive a transformative learning experience that will equip students with the practical skills needed to excel in future careers.

Ahmad Al Asady is an assistant professor of management, Challey Institute faculty scholar, and research fellow at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Family Business at North Dakota State University. Siri Terjesen is associate dean for research and external relations, and Phil Smith professor of entrepreneurship at Florida Atlantic University’s College of Business.

If you would like advice and insight from academics and university staff delivered direct to your inbox each week, sign up for the Campus newsletter.


You may also like

sticky sign up

Register for free

and unlock a host of features on the THE site