Experiential learning is one way that colleges and universities can better prepare their students for a life of work. Peter Stokes highlights one innovative approach.

July 25, 2013

The global economic crisis of the last five years has concentrated our collective attention, both here in the U.S. and around the world, on the need for jobs -- as well as the need for strategies to support meaningful economic growth. Clearly, higher education has an important role to play here.

For example, a December 2012 study from McKinsey & Company, “Education to Employment: Designing a System that Works,” warns us that there are 75 million unemployed youth globally, and that we are facing a projected global shortfall of 85 million middle- and high-skilled workers by 2020. Furthermore, 39 percent of employers surveyed by McKinsey from around the world say that a lack of adequate skills among applicants is the reason entry-level positions go unfilled. McKinsey’s report distinguishes between successful and unsuccessful efforts around the world at addressing the skills gap, and argues that success is achieved when “education providers and employers actively step into one another’s worlds,” and when the “education-to-employment journey is treated as a continuum.”

While higher education institutions and employers have long worked side by side to better prepare and develop skilled workers and strengthen leadership en route to supporting a stronger economy, the need for closer collaboration and tighter alignment between these sectors has arguably never been more critical – particularly if we aspire to create an experience that treats the journey from education to employment as a continuum.

Inasmuch as Northeastern University, where I happen to work, is a leading experiential learning institution and recognized for its signature cooperative education program -- or “co-op” -- which gives students the opportunity to gain real-world, paid professional experience in the course of their studies, these are issues we think about a great deal.

Like all institutions, we want our recent graduates to land good jobs and advance their careers -- and we want the local economies within which those graduates work to benefit as well. But experience has taught us that there is no single path to achieving this aim, and thus we recognize the need to continually explore new ways of creating powerful experiential learning opportunities for our students that foster a smoother and more productive journey from education to employment.

Notwithstanding the attention garnered by Peter Thiel and his Thiel Fellows program, which encourages promising young entrepreneurs under the age of 20 to skip college and start their own businesses, aided by a grant from Thiel, we still believe that universities have an important role to play – whether students are joining a business or starting their own. In fact, we think it’s possible to wed academic and entrepreneurial experiences in ways that are terrifically powerful.

Take, for example, the Northeastern University IDEA venture accelerator in the D’Amore-McKim School of Business, which provides current and former Northeastern students with a unique experiential learning opportunity.

Founded in 2009, IDEA provides entrepreneurs with guidance on everything from writing a business plan to filing for a patent to designing a logo, and more. It also connects entrepreneurs with student coaches and experienced mentors to help them take the seed of an idea and develop it into a going concern. IDEA also goes a step further -- it provides small grants of about $10,000 to select ventures vetted by an investment committee comprised of fellow students. To date, IDEA has helped to nurture over 300 ventures, and supported the launch of eight companies.

While numerous universities host incubators of one stripe or another, Northeastern’s approach is distinguished by the way in which it links education, incubation and commercialization – and perhaps most importantly by the fact that so much of it is run by students. That’s truly experiential.

IDEA’s CEO is Max Kaye, a Northeastern undergraduate who fulfills his executive role supported by a co-op. Kaye says that the incubator provides an important form of experiential learning. “In the classroom,” he observed, “I’m typically either right or wrong, and I can study to increase my knowledge base. In the IDEA lab, no one knows whether I’m right or wrong until my proposal is implemented. If my judgment is right, then the plan works.”

Dan Gregory is co-director of the Center for Entrepreneurship Education at Northeastern, the division of the D’Amore-McKim School of Business that IDEA operates. The center facilitates a tailored coupling of formal classroom education, through electives, majors, boot camps, and workshops, with IDEA's experiential programming. Gregory is also the founding faculty advisor to IDEA. He noted that lots of universities host business plan competitions, but IDEA takes a different approach, not only by providing guidance, mentoring and in many cases funding, but also by “staying involved until the venture is self-sustaining.”

“The thing that is innovative and disruptive about what we do,” said Marc Meyer, the Robert J. Shillman Professor of Entrepreneurship and a Matthews Distinguished University Professor at Northeastern, and a co-director of Northeastern’s Center for Entrepreneurship Education, “is that we have organized a system where you have three components of a continuum: educate, incubate and launch. IDEA is an important part of this, and so are our entrepreneurship courses and co-op jobs in early-stage entrepreneurial firms. We house these activities in a University-wide Center that draws active participants from across the entire university, as well as alums. All this makes for a tremendous experiential learning experience focused on entrepreneurial thinking. Even if a student does not start his or her own company, these are kinds of people that large companies want to hire for fresh thinking and initiative.”

Gregory also noted that many of IDEA’s alumni take the knowledge they’ve earned locally and carry it with them around the world, further disseminating the entrepreneurial know-how honed both in the classroom and through real-world experience.

Co-ops, internships, and apprenticeship programs will undoubtedly remain staples of the experiential learning model, even as new forms of experiential learning will continue to be developed to support other populations, including online learners and students studying around the globe. But the IDEA venture accelerator points to a different and highly relevant means of putting experience into experiential learning – particularly as we all look to help our students move beyond the classroom and into the workplace by more deeply integrating study and work.

“I'm a huge advocate for this model,” IDEA CEO Kaye told me. “I've participated in two study-abroad programs, two co-ops, and now another experiential learning opportunity at IDEA. I think when you move students away from a textbook and closer to real people – whether those are business types, politicians, educators, and so on – they develop a skill set and judgment that is more broadly applicable in industry.”

And that’s just as true in Kuala Lumpur, Sao Paulo, and Moscow as it is in Boston.


Peter Stokes is vice president of global strategy and business development at Northeastern University, and author of the Peripheral Vision column.


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