The Boundaries of Social Entrepreneurship in Higher Education: A New Framework

by Michele Reid




To quote Lao Tzu, every journey begins with a single step. And so, I took one step on my journey toward my PhD by visiting Rollins College in beautiful Winter Park, FL. I selected Rollins College, an Ashoka U Changemaker campus, as one of my dissertation research locations. The dissertation, completed in July 2016, titled “The Boundaries of Social Entrepreneurship in Higher Education: A New Framework” (ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global, 10147070) offers insights to the state of social entrepreneurship education in the US.  Data collected includes document reviews, interviews with faculty, trustees, alumni, and community partners, and on site observation of leading educational institutions in the social innovation and entrepreneurship movement.


I visited the Rollins campus the week of November 9, 2015 to conduct interviews and observe how this leading college in the liberal arts manages its initiatives.  Rollins’ participation added richness to my findings, and I thank everyone involved, especially Dr. Mary Conway Dato-on, who served as the site coordinator, and Patty Hughes, who assisted with the arrangements.


The research provides knowledge into the emerging theory and practice of social entrepreneurship, and how social entrepreneurship supports the innovative creation of economically self-sustaining social value in higher education settings.  An increasing number of colleges and universities, including Rollins, have embraced innovation and social entrepreneurship to stay competitive and align with their public service missions.  However, the field still lacks a broad understanding of what actually constitutes social entrepreneurship in higher education and how it should be carried out.  According to my literature review, social entrepreneurship incorporates the more ethical dimensions of innovative business practices in the pursuit of financial sustainability while advancing societal goals.  Social Entrepreneurship intends to empower all participants while bringing about positive changes in communities and society at large.


Through my numerous site visits (Brigham Young University, College of the Atlantic, Rollins College, Tulane University, and Western Washington University), I applied a multi-case study design to explore the social entrepreneurship in higher education (SEHE) framework. The qualitative analysis of the five institutions recognized for their early adoption of social entrepreneurship practices captures a range of institutions serving diverse communities, in keeping with social entrepreneurship’s focus of addressing social issues affecting the underserved. My research approach utilizes the lens of structuration theory to develop a complex understanding of social entrepreneurship as a multifaceted social phenomenon derived through the examination of its actors in their structural context.


The resulting SEHE framework advances scholarly understanding of the elements and process of social entrepreneurship, and to serve as a model for those considering social entrepreneurship related implementations at other colleges and universities. The framework examines the definitional and operational aspects of innovation and social entrepreneurship, and translates business concepts to other disciplines, enabling their adoption by scholars and practitioners in areas such as education, social sciences, and liberal arts, while allowing for a broader scope of socially beneficial projects that could be undertaken. Social entrepreneurship’s emphasis on financial sustainability should also be attractive to administrators for its ability to enable access to alternative funding sources.


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