Nick Ducoff responded to writer Jeff Selingo’s Grade Point piece about how parents and students increasingly view college as a route to a first job, rather than a broad education to prepare oneself for an array of different challenges over the years of one’s career.

Read Selingo’s “What happens when colleges fail to prepare graduates for jobs?” here. 

Ducoff describes his job as the vice president for new ventures at the Northeastern University Global Network as leading a team to incubate new business ideas, diversify revenue streams, and advance a new model of education that moves beyond traditional boundaries. Ducoff was previously an executive at two venture-backed start-ups, including Infochimps, which was acquired by CSC, and started his career as a venture capital attorney.

He argues it’s not the ‘skills gap’ that many employers talk about so much as an ‘experience gap’ that is holding some recent graduates back from the best jobs — and that colleges should be closing that gap by ensuring that students get meaningful experiences preparing them for work long before they finish school.

This piece has been lightly edited.

Nick Ducoff (Photo by Jesse Crouch) Nick Ducoff (Photo by Jesse Crouch)

‘While the unemployment rate for those with a bachelor’s degree has dropped to 2.8 percent, 44 percent of college graduates still claim to be underemployed.

The jobs are there; so is the perception of a “skills gap.”

Whether the skills gap is wildly overblown or all too painfully real, perception is reality. In any event, there is an experience gap — one colleges should be responsible for helping bridge.

The higher education system transfers knowledge, and relies on students to take that knowledge and apply it to their desired field. Why should students be expected to bear the burden, however, if schools aren’t offering the opportunities necessary for them to apply what they learn outside the classroom?

Colleges need to provide students with more experiential learning opportunities — more activities that integrate the lessons of the classroom with the real world.

Ninety-three percent of CEOs and other C-suite executives surveyed in Northeastern University’s Innovation Imperative Series agree that “colleges and universities should expand opportunities for experiential learning.”

If colleges don’t, for-profits will.

Students are signing up for bootcamps like Startup Institute, General Assembly, Fullbridge and the Flatiron School, each of which promise to equip students with the skills employers demand.

Last March, 13 colleges announced a partnership with a bootcamp called Koru. The Seattle, Wash.-based bridge program matches students with companies like LinkedIn and Wayfair to work on relevant, real-world projects. Students are then granted first-hand experience, and employers get the opportunity to screen and build a talent pipeline. Koru Co-founder Kristen Hamilton is so sure of the program, graduates aren’t required to pay the cost of the program until they have landed a job.

Among the colleges reported to be working with Koru is Brown University, consistently ranked as one of the best colleges in the country.

If Brown’s Ivy League graduates already paid up to $182,448 in tuition, why should they have to cover an additional expense for an experience they should have been offered before graduation?

According to the 2014 Programming Bootcamp Graduate Survey, published by Course Report, students are paying an additional $10,267 to get the skills they need to get a job.

Getting a job shouldn’t start after a student graduates — it should be a multi-step process baked into the curriculum. Students should be provided experiential learning opportunities to apply their knowledge to develop skills through projects and internships.

“To develop mastery, students must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply them,” Susan Ambrose, Northeastern University’s senior vice provost for undergraduate education and experiential learning, said in a workshop at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.

One way for students to acquire those component skills is through paid internships, which have a proven track record of success. The National Association of Colleges and Employers discovered that 63 percent of paid interns received at least one job offer post-graduation. Overall, graduates have a seven in 10 chance of being hired by the company they interned with, but: there are 21 million college students and only 2 million internships.

The “simple” solution is to create 19 million more paid internships, but that’s not going to happen. The solution thus becomes one about improving access to experience as much as it is about improving access to education, and the key is to give students project-based work or field studies earlier in their career.

“Increasingly, employers base their hiring on what you’ve actually done,” said Rob Biederman, CEO of HourlyNerd, a consulting company that connects businesses to experienced professionals and MBAs. “When we seek to hire candidates we spend 95 percent of the interview on work experience — even if project-based or field studies — and less than 5 percent on academics.”

Companies, such as Endevvr and Codecademy, are providing students with relevant experiences as early as high school.

Endevvr’s summer programs are designed to help talented students start and fund their own companies, while Codecademy hosts Javascript and Web & jQuery projects for those between the ages of 15 and 17.

Parents agree earlier is better when it comes to experience.

Noodle, founded by education entrepreneur John Katzman, recently surveyed 985 parents of high school- or college-aged students, and discovered that 73 percent of them ranked the “acquisition of real-world marketable skills” as the second most important factor in choosing a college, behind only a “safe environment.”

Only 43 percent of those same parents, however, felt that their child’s college delivered on its promise to provide the proper skills.

If colleges incorporated project-based work into the classroom, that could start alleviating the problem, particularly if that work evolved into a paid project. One could easily imagine, then, that if students successfully completed that project, it could lead to a paid internship — which, as the data shows, often leads to a paid job.

Colleges, students, and employers need to step up to close the skills gap. But to do that, they will need to close the experience gap first.’