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Clarkson University backs student entrepreneurs

Amy Scott Apr 25, 2012

Tess Vigeland: High school seniors are traveling the country right now, making final decisions on where to go to college. A few of them just might run into President Barack Obama, who’s on his own college tour. Today, a stop at the University of Iowa, where he again pushed a plan to keep interest rates on some federal student loans from doubling this summer. House Speaker John Boehner scheduled a vote on the plan for Friday.

Even with all the debt students are taking on, we tend to think of college as an investment in their future. But Clarkson University in upstate New York is turning that idea on its head, offering young entrepreneurs free tuition in exchange for a cut of their business. In collaboration with CNN Money, Marketplace’s Amy Scott reports from the Education Desk at WYPR.

Amy Scott: Clarkson is a small, private college in Potsdam, so far upstate in New York it’s practically Canada. As fat snowflakes fall outside on a February day, five students pitch their business ideas to a panel of judges.

Paul Hyman: I’m Paul Hyman and I am from Safety Technology Solutions.  

Anna Gladkikh: I’m Anna. My business idea is Feels Like Home.

Cyrus Schenck: My name is Cyrus Schenck, and I’m here to present today an idea we call East Coast Skis.

The students are competing for free tuition at Clarkson. That’s worth more than $37,000 a year. Winners also get office space, and alumni contacts and marketing help. The university gets up to a ten percent stake in their business.

Marc Compeau directs Clarkson’s Reh Center for Entrepreneurship. He says the idea was born a few years ago, when Clarkson gave a four-year scholarship to a local high schooler who’d started a web design business.

Marc Compeau: The cost of education has just gotten so high, that in order for us to continue to impact people, you know, put your money where your mouth is and make that impact in a way that shows a future return.

And Compeau says Clarkson is making money on its investment already.

Kim Clark: It’s an important experiment, because if they can make it work, maybe other schools can.

Kim Clark writes about college finance for CNNMoney. She says an idea floated at the University of California would have students pay nothing upfront, but then fork over 5 percent of their paychecks for 20 years.

Clark: It makes the college much more accountable for the actual learning of the student. If I’m a college president, and my income is going to depend on you the student making a lot of money, I’m not going to let you get drunk on Saturday night. I’m gonna make sure you study.

On pitch day at Clarkson, the ideas range from a microchip that unlocks your house, car and gym locker to a ski built for the, shall we say, variable conditions of the East.

Schenck: We want the ski to be able to change from ice, to groomers, to powder, all within seconds.

Anna Gladkikh, already a junior at Clarkson, proposes a store for international students stocked with goodies from back home.

Gladkikh: You have this great exchange experience, but you still miss your country, you still miss your favorite tea, you still miss Mommy.

Gladkikh’s idea won her a scholarship for her last year of school. Incoming freshman and volunteer firefighter Paul Hyman also won. He designed a system to prevent clothes-dryers from catching fire. Clarkson will cover his tuition all four years.

Hyman: Without this scholarship it would be near to impossible for me to attend Clarkson, and I knew that that was really the place for me. It was just a huge relief, you know, for me and for my family.

If running a business while attending college gets to be too much or he changes his mind, he can always back out. But then he’ll be on the hook for tuition.

I’m Amy Scott for Marketplace.

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