Universities Looking Beyond the Traditional For-Credit Semester Experiences

Salesforce’s third Connected Student Report, released last month, identifies some serious shortcomings perceived by college and university students. While almost half of the 1,300 students surveyed stated that they chose their university because of possible career prospects, only 11 percent felt ready to start their career. 40 percent of students said their universities offer job-specific workshops to help them build their careers.

This dissatisfaction with the existing college-to-workplace bridge is compounded by the high cost and poor profitability for students and their families. The Third Way think tank identified 5,989 public, private, non-profit, and private for-profit college and university programs for which there is no financial return on their tuition investment based on how long it takes their graduates to get their money back:

Based on student income and what they paid for college, she found that about half will recoup their costs within five years, but nearly a quarter will take 20 years or more. Of those, more than half will never earn enough to cover their expenses… Another think tank, the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, has used robust data to conclude that more than a quarter of programs — including the most in the arts – music, philosophy, religion and psychology – leave students financially worse off than if they had never enrolled. This analysis looked at earnings not just at two years, but over a graduate’s lifetime by incorporating additional information collected by the Census Bureau.

We have to be careful with ROI claims because too often calculations only compare tuition fees to the increase in average graduate earnings over time. That fails to capture the opportunity and cost of experience of four to five years off the workforce while the student is in college. The interest cost of student loans is also too often ignored: “The average student loan alone accrues $26,000 in interest over 20 years (at a rounded average interest rate of 6%). Up to 67.1% of the average borrower’s total repayment cost is interest income.”

In response to these concerns, we are seeing a surge of universities offering alternative credentials to document the skills and knowledge of the workforce. Some of these initiatives appear to be based on the individual initiative of an enthusiastic faculty member or an isolated department rather than part of a considered university-wide review of the full range of needs, opportunities, costs and benefits. While individual initiative is to be applauded for being less consistent across the curriculum, the student body as a whole is less well served.

We are clearly seeing a popular but relatively uncoordinated movement to address the disconnect between the university and the workforce. Finding the best ways to rebuild that bridge may require looking back at past motivators. 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 period of very high populism in the country, when people in states like Washington and California didn’t see higher education that reflected the needs of the general population, there was a movement to remove public funding from universities,” he said Branon. Extension units were established to serve those the university does not serve. Looking to higher education in modern times, Branon said there are still unserved and underserved audiences, which should prompt colleges and universities to rethink how they implement their respective missions… According to Branon, realizing that vision requires colleges and Universities to reassess their relationship with technology – and look at the learning product from a different perspective.

In a detailed report released late last month, the Brookings Institution asks an important question: Whose learning matters? The report examines the value of learning outside of the classroom. The report addresses the two issues of how those who have learned outside the classroom can better communicate their skills and knowledge to employers, and how governments can facilitate the awarding of credit for this learning in academic institutions.

Some of the buildings have existed unused for decades. Professor Matt Bergman of the University of Louisville writes in Evolllution that Credit for Prior Learning (CPL), also known as Prior Learning Assessment (PLA), provides a way to get credit for academic knowledge outside of the classroom at a lower cost to the learner. Citing a recent study by CAEL and the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education that included 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 being offered at thousands of colleges and universities. Most of them recognize a wide range of documented experiential learning that can be applied as college credit.

The federal government also supports teaching in a variety of ways. With more than 800,000 apprenticeships nationwide, the website apprenticeship.gov claims to be the single source for connecting career seekers, employers and education partners with education resources. Noting that the registered training program has a proven record of producing good results for both employers and employees, the website states that the average starting salary of those who complete approved training is $77,000. The National Center for Employment Statistics reports that the average starting salary for a bachelor’s degree holder totals $59,600.

Internships are also a good way to gain work experience during your studies. The federal government is also modeling best practices by offering paid internships at the White House and State Department, among many other opportunities.

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