The Strategic Differentiator of Career & Experiential Learning

Universities are facing major decisions about who and what they are and who and what that will become. The decisions that are made will determine which institutions will move to the upper echelon and those that will fade into mediocrity. Considerations include the budding MOOC movement, legislators tying funding to student post-graduate employment outcomes, the Higher Education Reauthorization Act (placement data and gainful employment), Student Right to Know Before You Go Act, the balance of education vs. training, budget reductions, the increased competition for students and the added intensity to retain them, among many others. The purpose of this post is to focus on one important initiative that can be a differentiator for traditional universities, implementing an exceptional career and experiential learning program.

Stephen Schwartz, former Vice Chancellor at Macquarie University in Australia, last year published an e-book entitled “10,000 books, 10,000 miles: the journey towards wisdom.” In this book he makes the case that the ultimate product of the university is to develop within students not only the skills necessary to do a job but with it the wisdom of how to apply to those skills. He provides the example of when he led a medical school. He states that doctors can be exceptional at diagnosing patient ailments but if they don’t understand how to communicate difficult news in a heartfelt way they will never function optimally as a physician. In order to address this issue, he integrated counseling courses into the curriculum for medical students that were then applied in practice. The point is students get the most out of learning when the theoretical and the practical are integrated resulting in an increased understanding of how and when to apply one’s knowledge. Also, that unless students have an understanding of what has been learned before they won’t be able to articulate and apply the why when judgment/ethical situations arise.

Many traditional universities have long been exceptional in providing learning experiences in the classroom but have not been as successful providing opportunities for practical application. In the McKinsey & Company’s Education to Employment report (http://mckinseyonsociety.com/education-to-employment/), students from nine countries reported that the top three most effective instructional techniques included on-the-job training, hands-on learning and multimedia instruction, over 50% for each. Thirty-five percent of students reported that traditional lecture and online/distance learning were effective instructional techniques. Seventy-six percent of students reported that traditional lecture accounted for the majority of their instruction. A recent Gallup/Lumina Foundation survey asked respondents what was the primary reason students attend post-secondary education. Fifty-three percent answered to earn more money, 33% responded to get a good job. All other answers were 5% or less. Additionally, the 2012 Freshman Survey published by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program reports that when asked how important certain factors were in deciding to attend college, 88% responded that to get a better job was very important, the highest percentage response to the question. The second highest response, 75%, was to be able to make more money. Both responses were all time highs in the history of the survey. In order to be attractive to prospective students we must sincerely address why the majority choose to pursue a college education and earnestly assist them in reaching their goals.

Creating a more strategic approach to career and experiential learning can have a significant impact on student persistence to graduation. Recent research completed by the University Career Center found that 26% of the variance in institutional integration and 22% of the variance in intention to persist to graduation, known predictors of graduation, can be traced to career services outcomes such as vocational identity, confidence in engaging in occupational exploration and career decision self-efficacy (p<.001). Beyond career services, service learning, undergraduate research and study abroad all demonstrate positive impacts on student retention and persistence to graduation.

In addition to providing career and experiential learning support for students, we need to do a better job of providing a clear picture for prospective students on what can be achieved at university while at the same time retooling what we provide so that it better meets the expectations of prospective students. In the human resources literature there is a term called realistic job preview. Research has demonstrated when a realistic job preview is provided to prospective employees it makes a significant impact on employee retention and job satisfaction. I would suggest that by providing a better understanding of what it takes for students to be successful in college as well as implementing a world-class career and experiential learning operation to better address students’ reasons for attending university, we will be able to positively impact persistence to graduation.

Recently the governor of North Carolina built upon proposals in Florida and Ohio to tie funding for higher education to student post-graduate employment instead of student enrollment. Understanding that some legislators will find this approach appealing it is important that universities address the underlying issues associated with this philosophy. It is imperative that we continue to provide students an exceptional educational experience inside and outside the classroom and not become another institution in the business of training employees to accomplish tasks.

This post addresses issues that many institutions are confronting and that all institutions will eventually face. Wake Forest, Notre Dame, Yale, Iowa, Princeton and Clemson have all, within the last several years, implemented a high level restructuring of career and experiential learning services at their institutions while institutions such as Drexel, Northeastern and the Rochester Institute of Technology have long seen the benefits of such a structure. An integrated and strategic approach to career and experiential learning addresses students reasons for attending university, amplifies their learning while here, increases their chances of graduating and leading a more meaningful, purposeful and successful life.

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