This Viewpoint is part of an ongoing series, “Building a brighter future: Big ideas for postsecondary education.” In this series, we ask innovators what could make a difference to learners in 2021 and beyond.
Melinda Day is cofounder and co-chancellor at Reach University.
The idea of pairing college degrees with contextualized work experience is not unusual or unique in higher education. Whether called cooperative education, apprenticeship programs, internships, or vocational education, each experience is focused on the same goal: to provide students with on-the-job training so that when they graduate, students have developed, work-relevant skills.
Research into these programs have shown many benefits, but in too many cases, work experience is not designed in tandem with the degree program, the programs focus solely on the Associates level, or the effort adds more time to graduation for students. If our aim is to unlock human potential through postsecondary education, we have to better integrate learning and work.
Reach University started as a teacher-training program focused on alternative credentialing for nontraditional students. Embedding work experience in the degree was a critical piece of our strategy. Seeing success with teachers, we are now adapting and expanding our model to provide a job-embedded undergraduate degree experience. The approach could also be applied to fields like health care, public policy, and information technology.
Undergraduate students at Reach are required to work every semester. Starting in a placement in their first year and transitioning to an apprenticeship by the end of the four-year degree, students are supported by faculty and mentors as they gain more responsibility at their job. By the end of a student’s time in the program, they have subject-specific content knowledge, job-connected general education, and years of work experience. Students leave with the theoretical foundation and practical skills needed to be successful in their careers.
A focus on work can be meaningful for all types of students, but especially the non-traditional, adult learner. This strategy builds self-identity as students see themselves as learners and teachers who are deeply engaged in a relevant education process. This aligns with research suggesting that adults are motivated to keep developing when engaged in relevant and applied experiences that are connected to their ambitions. Adults are motivated to learn when they perceive that their education will help them perform tasks or deal with problems they confront in their lives.
Instead of being in the background as a supplement to student learning, work experience needs to be central in order to build the future workforce. The future of higher education rests in changing the role of work in degree programs writ large.
The Charles Koch Foundation partners with social entrepreneurs to drive societal progress through academic research and innovations that help all learners realize their potential. Read more about the Foundation’s support for education.