Recent data shows that high school graduation rates have improved. But the high school dropout rate in the U.S. still stands at 8.1 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This number represents 16- to 24-year-olds who are not enrolled in school and have not earned a high school diploma or GED. And a serious problem remains: the dropout rate skyrockets to 9.3 percent among African-American students, 17.6 percent among Latino students, and 13.2 percent among Native American students.
We’ve all heard the stories of successful entrepreneurs who dropped out of school, focused their energy on creating great products and services, and built empires. Just look at those who decided that college was not for them—Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Sean John Combs, or Michael Rubin.
But these stories are the exception. Most successful entrepreneurs need a baseline education, and most high school dropouts lack the knowledge or experience they would need to become a future success story. Education is crucial to entrepreneurship.
If students are engaged in school, if their lessons make sense to a world outside the classroom, if they receive coaching and support, they are more likely to finish their education and step forward confidently with their lives. A vast majority of high school dropouts say they would have stayed in school if classes were more relevant outside the classroom.
An entrepreneurial mindset can help at-risk students by offering them a more relevant approach to their education. That’s exactly what we strive to impart through NFTE, and we’re happy to see many of our students stay in school and grow into engaged citizens capable of building successful companies. For these reasons, fostering young entrepreneurs is crucial for the students’ success as well as the success of the economy and society.
Here are some key ways to keep next-generation entrepreneurs engaged:
- Be authentic. We always stress authenticity among our NFTE volunteers. Many of our volunteers and teachers will honestly explain their personal stories: They worked for a corporation and didn’t like it. They wanted to be their own boss. They wanted to control their own destiny. Students respond to that. Kids listen when their teachers are telling stories that the kids believe and that are relevant in their lives.
- Make schoolwork relevant. Students might have a dream job, but they often overlook the stepping stones to getting there. Math, science, and English classes may seem worthless at the moment, but are essential to developing life skills, which may include budgeting or crafting business plans for the budding entrepreneur. One of our goals at NFTE is to provide a new perspective connecting academics with real world applications through our volunteers. An entrepreneurial lens gives a more meaningful perspective to the work they do in school.
- Adopt students’ perspective. We always ask our volunteers to put themselves in the students’ seat. If teachers plan to lecture, they should expect to see fidgeting, droopy eyelids, maybe even a head down on a desk. Instead, successful teachers engage students with audio, video, interactivity, and active participation. We encourage our volunteers to become tech savvy to best relate to students.
- Make engagement a community effort. The burden of keeping kids engaged in school doesn’t fall just on teachers or principals. It falls on the entire community. Our enthusiasm for education and entrepreneurship often spills out to businesspeople in the community, offering students broader support. For example, the Wharton Small Business Development Center is working with the semi-finalists in our regional business plan competition to help hone students’ ideas.
- Adjust expectations. Some high school students can barely comprehend grade-level textbooks, but they’ve been passed from one grade to the next anyway. These low expectations can be reversed through engagement. It’s only when students have real incentives to try harder that they seek the extra help they need. That’s what we attempt to do through NFTE. We address all different learning styles to give every student a sense of the practical applications for their education.
Through the NFTE entrepreneurship curriculum, we are connecting academics to real world experience with very active support from our dedicated volunteers. With their real world experience and the support of the community of entrepreneurs, we’re giving these kids a new lens through which to look at the world. While they’re in an environment that might be saying to them that they aren’t important, we believe they are. We value everyone’s contribution. It’s how we can make the world a better place in which to live.