January 16, 2019

The Future of Experiential Learning

In my senior year of college, I began to reflect on the array of majors I explored in my four years: chemistry, music, math, journalism, and psychology, to name a few. It might seem odd that I graduated with a degree in Judaic Studies, but my university was phasing out its major in Liberal Studies. On the cusp of being flung into the so-called Real World, I regularly thought to myself, “what did any of the classes I took have to do with my future employment? What about these four years suddenly prepared me to work full-time?”

Clearly, I wasn’t alone in having these thoughts: according to the Harvard Business Review, two out of three college graduates spend part or all of their 20s trying to begin their careers.

The chief difference between the 35% of adults who launched into their careers immediately after college and the rest who didn’t? Experiential learning opportunities, especially internships and work-based learning experiences.

By bringing their academic knowledge to the workplace and engaging in work environments while still in school, students set the groundwork for a smooth launch from college to career. Additionally, these experiences can increase a graduate’s earnings by up to 20% and help prevent underemployment, a lasting problem which affects 43% of all college graduates, according to a report by Burning Glass Technologies.

Experiential Learning in Schools

To better prepare students for careers, increasing numbers of universities are turning to experiential learning initiatives. Colleges at the forefront of the formalized experiential learning movement include Claremont McKenna College, which sponsors students who participate in a summer internship or experiential learning; Northeastern University, whose co-op program includes two semesters of full-time employment related to a student’s academic and/or career aspirations; and Purdue University, which offers up to 22-month co-ops with the same employer.

Elsewhere, The University of Texas at Austin and others are working to embed student-centered, experiential learning practices in faculty instruction and curriculum, bringing faculty into the equation and connecting students’ academic experiences with their professional goals. At the secondary level, Pathways in Technology school models, or P-TECH, which provide students with experiential learning opportunities in tech fields, are becoming more popular. State governments are even playing ball by trying to align student outcomes with workforce needs through experiential learning.

These trends reflect a modern work culture that demands more of its new employees than ever before and, in turn, has created a strong need for students to be better prepared for professional experiences during and after college.

Looking Ahead: Partnerships, Alignment, and Curricula, Oh My!

So, what do these trends in experiential learning mean for the future of (higher) education and workforce preparation? If The 60 Year Curriculum and its emphasis on lifelong learning is any indication, we’ll continue to see more–and stronger–partnerships between schools (especially community colleges), employers, and organizations in the space, such as Ei. Personally, I hope these partnerships lead to revamped curricula aimed at closing the gap between students’ educational outcomes and employer expectations, leading to a smoother onboarding process for young employees.

Additionally, these surveys on the future of work show that business executives and hiring managers continue to place high value on a college degree and on many “soft” skills (ex. oral and written communication, critical thinking, and ethical judgment) students develop on campus and through experiential learning. In light of this information, we should aim to ensure that experiential learning opportunities not only include developing the problem-solving and critical thinking skills necessary to be successful in the workplace, but also the communication and teamwork skills executives and hiring managers like to see in their employees.

If we can continue to find new ways to create experiential learning opportunities and promote them to college students, help students learn how to talk to prospective employers about these experiences, and work with colleges to provide tangible takeaways from these experiences (such as including them on transcripts), we can bring about important change. Students will more successfully launch their careers immediately after graduation, colleges will continue to invest in experiential learning programs, and business executives and hiring managers will more highly value their young employees. When we combine all of these factors, we will have a well-prepared and highly effective workforce with a strong connection to higher education and a positive outlook on experiential learning.

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