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Significant doubts about the work readiness of college graduates plagued higher education long before the pandemic. Fresh data from Inside Higher Ed’s Student Voice survey have put a fine point on how much the pandemic has dented efforts to improve. A mere 22 percent of students had a virtual or in-person internship last year (less than half the 40 percent-plus rate in typical years), undoubtedly compounding work-readiness issues. Increasing employer partnerships and improving career services will be part of the strategy going forward.

But, ultimately, it’s chief academic officers who wield the power to save the day with respect to student work readiness.

Gallup research has shown that graduates double their odds of being engaged in their work later if they had a job or internship during college where they applied what they were learning in the classroom, and/or if they worked on a long-term project that took a semester or more to complete. In addition, students who had an internship were twice as likely to have a good job waiting for them upon graduation. Nothing moves the needle on work readiness more than internships connected to academic learning and long-term projects integrated into the curriculum. These are both in the domain of academic affairs.

Colleges and universities that include career readiness as part of the academic core of their institution (as opposed to a tangential aspect or afterthought) are the ones leading the way on career readiness and outcomes.

The 100-plus-year-old co-op model embedded in the academic programming of institutions like Northeastern University, Drexel University and the University of Cincinnati has made these institutions more desirable than ever before with graduates, who are more likely to have multiple job offers than none at all. Institutions that have viewed career and personal development as something deserving of a rigorous academic curriculum -- as Wake Forest University has done -- are winning student, parent and employer applause. And institutions developing work-integrated experiences across their curriculum -- such as Kenyon College and Concordia College -- are revitalizing the liberal arts.

The career services function has traditionally lived within student affairs divisions at most colleges and universities. However, over the past five years it has become increasingly more common to see career services shifting into academic affairs. Better aligning career services with academic affairs is an important step in the right direction. But purposeful intentionality and policies are where provosts can make the biggest impact. Providing academic credit for internships and embedding work-like or work-integrated projects across the curriculum have the potential to reach 100 percent of students with the most important experiences for their future work success.

Our problem today isn’t that colleges and universities don’t offer internships and project-based learning; it’s that these happen for only a fraction of students. The Gallup-Purdue Index opened our eyes to this by revealing that less than a third of graduates had an internship where they applied what they were learning or took a class that involved a semester-long project.

Higher education institutions that scale these experiences will quite simply become the most successful institutions in the future. Chief academic officers have an incredible opportunity to lead the way in ensuring their institutions are intentional about work readiness and that they create policies to reinforce it.

Allowing students to apply what they are learning in the classroom and to bring insights into the classroom from work and project-based experiences is highly effective pedagogy.

Internships and work-integrated projects do not distract from the core academic mission; rather, they enhance it. Allowing students to apply what they are learning in the classroom and to bring insights into the classroom from work and project-based experiences is highly effective pedagogy. Now is the time for provosts to seize on the imperative and urgency for improving work readiness.

Student Voice explores higher education from the perspective of students, providing unique insights on their attitudes and opinions. Kaplan provides funding and insights to support Inside Higher Ed’s coverage of student polling data from College Pulse. Inside Higher Ed maintains editorial independence and full discretion over its coverage.

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As Bates College has shown through its “purposeful work” initiative, it is possible to both embrace the classic values of the liberal arts and ensure students are specifically prepared for jobs and careers. And employers solidly validate this vision in what they are looking for in the kinds of graduates they seek to hire.

Yes, employers need to play a big part in offering more paid internship experiences (virtual, in-person, micro, co-op, etc.) at scale. But no leader -- across all organizations -- is better positioned to improve the talent development pipeline in the U.S. than chief academic officers of colleges and universities.

If provosts embrace the opportunity, higher education will catapult from increasingly doubted to more in demand than ever.

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