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Universities Looking Beyond the Traditional For-Credit Semester Experiences

Survey shows nearly half said they chose their college on the basis of potential career prospects, but only 11 percent felt prepared to enter the workforce.

November 16, 2022

Salesforce’s third annual Connected Student Report, released last month, identifies some serious shortcomings perceived by college and university students. While nearly half of the 1,300 students surveyed said they chose their college on the basis of potential career prospects, only 11 percent felt prepared to enter the workforce. Forty percent of the students suggested their universities offer job-specific workshops to help them build their careers.

This dissatisfaction with the existing bridge from college to the workforce is reinforced by the high costs and low return on investment for students and their families. Think tank Third Way identified 5,989 public, private nonprofit and private for-profit college and university programs for which there is no financial return on the investment in tuition based on how long it takes their graduates to earn the money back:

Based on students’ incomes and what they paid for college, it found that while about half will recoup their costs within five years, nearly a quarter will take 20 years or more. Of those, more than half will never make enough to cover what they spent … Yet another think tank, the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, has used deep data to conclude that more than a quarter of programs—including most of those in art, music, philosophy, religion and psychology—leave students financially worse off than if they’d never enrolled. That analysis looked at earnings not only after two years, but over a graduate’s lifetime, by including additional information collected by the Census Bureau.

We must be careful about ROI assertions, because too often calculations compare only the cost of tuition to the increase in average income of college graduates over time. That fails to capture the opportunity and experience cost of four to five years outside the workforce while the student is college. Also ignored too often is the cost of interest on student loans: “The average student loan accrues $26,000 in interest alone over 20 years (at the rounded average interest rate of 6%). Up to 67.1% of the average borrower’s total cost of repayment is generated interest.”

In response to these concerns, we are seeing a flood of universities offering alternative credentials to document workforce skills and knowledge. Some of these initiatives seem to be based on the individual initiative of an enthusiastic faculty member or an isolated department, rather than as part of a well-considered universitywide review of the whole range of needs, opportunities, costs and benefits. While individual initiative is to be congratulated, to the extent that they are less consistent across the curriculum, the student body as a whole is less well served.

Clearly, we are seeing a popular, but relatively uncoordinated, movement to address the disconnect between the university and the workforce. Finding the best ways to help rebuild that bridge may require looking back at the motivating factors of the past. Rovy Branon, vice provost of Continuum College at the University of Washington, says leaders should reflect on their mission and history for guidance:

“During a time of very high populism in the country, where people did not see higher ed reflecting the needs of the general population in states like Washington and California, there was a movement to defund universities from public funding,” Branon said. Extension units were founded to serve those who the university does not tend to serve. Looking at higher education in the modern era, Branon said there are still audiences that are unserved and under-served, which should prompt colleges and universities to revisit their execution on their respective missions … According to Branon, executing on this vision requires colleges and universities to re-evaluate their relationship with technology—and thinking about the learning product through a different lens.

In an expansive report released at the end of last month, the Brookings Institution asks an important question: Whose Learning Counts? The report investigates the value of learning outside the classroom. The report addresses the twin topics of how can those who have accrued learning outside the classroom better communicate their skills and knowledge to employers, and how can states facilitate the granting of credit for that learning in academic institutions?

In some cases, the structures have existed in underutilized form for decades. University of Louisville professor Matt Bergman writes in Evolllution that credit for prior learning (CPL), also known as prior learning assessment (PLA), offers an opportunity to bring academic credit to outside-the-classroom knowledge at a reduced cost to the learner. Citing a recent study by CAEL and the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, covering more than 465,000 students, he points to the strong links that exist between CPL and student success. The most exciting aspect is that CPL/PLA programs are already on the books at thousands of colleges and universities. Most of these recognize a wide range of documented experiential learning to be applied as college credit.

The federal government is also fostering apprenticeships in a number of ways. Noting that are more than 800,000 apprenticeships across the country, the apprenticeship.gov site claims to be the one-stop source to connect career seekers, employers and education partners with apprenticeship resources. Noting that the registered apprenticeship program has a proven track record of producing strong results for both employers and workers, the site says the average starting salary of those completing approved apprenticeships is $77,000. The National Center for Employment Statistics reports that overall the average starting salary of the holder of a bachelor’s degree is $59,600.

Internships are also a great way to gain workplace experience while attending college. The federal government also models best practices by offering paid internships at the White House and the State Department, among many other opportunities.

Are the CPL/PLA programs at your university thriving? If not, what can be done to make them more attractive to students, employers and faculty members? Does your college encourage paid apprenticeships and internships for credit? These are practice paths to give students the experience, skills and knowledge to confidently make the transition to the workplace.

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Ray Schroeder

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