Here is a guest post from Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern University in Boston. Northeastern received more than 43,000 applications for the 2011 freshman class, possibly the largest number submitted to any private college in America. In a recent interview, Aoun told me he thinks the school is popular partly because of its focus on career preparation and internships, useful endeavors in a bad economy.
The recent announcement by the Labor Department that the nation added 133,000 jobs last month was tempered by a stagnant unemployment rate of 9.1 percent. These numbers reinforce what some economists have been saying—that we may be facing a prolonged period of unemployment hovering near 10 percent.
One of the few bright spots on this front is experiential learning, a model of higher education that integrates classroom study with long-term, meaningful internships. Those familiar with experiential learning know that it provides students with a clear path toward employment after graduation. This is particularly true with co-op experiences, in which students secure full-time, six-month professional positions related to their academic work.
Students learn firsthand how to navigate and succeed in the modern workplace. More pragmatically, they form strong relationships with potential employers during their undergraduate years.
The importance of this second advantage has been heightened by the recession. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, intern hiring increased by 7 percent during the 2010-2011 academic year. This is particularly notable because, according to the same survey by NACE, employers are converting nearly 60 percent of their interns or co-ops into full-time hires.
As powerful as these statistics are, they don’t measure the many intangible benefits of experiential learning—the way it prepares undergraduates to navigate the unknown. Early immersion in a professional setting, especially when integrated with related classroom experiences, gives students the knowledge and confidence to be risk takers. As individuals, they become multifaceted, nimble and entrepreneurial.
Despite all of these practical and pedagogical advantages, institutions that use the experiential model should not play it safe. Now is the time to take experiential learning to the next level, through innovations that align with today’s economic and societal realities.
Global perspective: Today, a locally focused education does not prepare students for life. It’s as simple as that. Taking experiential learning global has become an educational imperative. At Northeastern, our students are engaged in experiential learning in 85 countries on all seven continents. They still gain all of the benefits of immersion in a professional setting, but with the added value of experiencing, in depth, new cultures, languages, and perspectives.
Civic engagement: One byproduct of the economic slowdown is increased student interest in public sector work. According to an analysis of census data by The New York Times, there has been a 16 percent increase in college graduates going into the federal government, while non-profits saw an 11 percent increase. There are also new federal programs that provide loan forgiveness for students who pursue public service careers. As a result, universities with a commitment to experiential learning should adapt to this shift by providing greater opportunities for students to work in government positions, domestic not-for-profits, and NGOs around the world. These experiences put students on the front lines of public policy and social entrepreneurship.
Grad school preparation: In the past decade, the number of undergraduates who go on to pursue a graduate degree has increased by 30 percent. It has become increasingly common for highly competitive graduate programs—both professional and doctoral—to expect applicants with relevant experience. Undergraduates who have worked in a lab, law firm, or Fortune 500 company will bring valuable insights to their graduate studies.
Experiential learning was developed more than a century ago as a practical way to finance a college education. As we are seeing at colleges and universities across the country, this model is becoming recognized as a central element of higher learning.
While there is a broad range of reasons for institutions to embrace an experiential approach, the best motive is also the most obvious: The world is too interesting to ignore.