College graduate worrying about lack of work experience

Opinion: To tackle the talent shortage, colleges must become ‘work experience’ brokers

'Building stronger pathways to work-based learning opportunities is critical to reversing the trend lines that are undermining confidence in higher education.'

Last fall – for the first time in more than three years – U.S. colleges and universities saw an increase in undergraduate enrollment. But this welcome news came with a concerning wrinkle: enrollment of first-time, full-time students fell considerably.

With thousands of members of the class of 2024 heading off to find their first job and navigate the world of work, we don’t have to dig too deeply to understand why young people are growing skeptical of college and its economic payoff.

A report released earlier this year from Strada Institute for the Future of Work and the Burning Glass Institute found that more than half of recent graduates from four-year U.S. institutions are underemployed a year after they leave school. A decade later, 45% of graduates still don’t have a job that requires a college degree.

It’s a story I know well. I took time off after high school to work before I enrolled at the University of Victoria in my native Canada, and I continued to hold jobs while I was in college. My work experience made it almost certain I would land a good co-op, a paid and structured work-based learning opportunity offered by most Canadian universities.

Co-ops, like internships, provide students with valuable, resume-enhancing job experience. But many of my classmates had gone straight from high school to university. When it came time to secure a co-op, these smart and accomplished students encountered a conundrum familiar to college graduates today: How do you get a job without experience? And how do you get experience if you can’t get a job? 

If colleges and universities are to restore faith in higher education, they will need to find the answers to these questions. 

Research shows that while students go to college for many reasons, they view securing a good job as the primary purpose of pursuing a degree. Graduates who participate in work-based learning while in college are more likely to feel satisfied with their careers and more likely to believe their education was worth the investment.

Students recognize the importance of work-based learning. About three-quarters of first-year students in the United States say they expect to have an internship before they graduate. Alarmingly, fewer than half complete one before their senior year. 

Students need more opportunities to obtain work experience, gain clarity about potential career paths, and build their skills and confidence before they enter the workforce. The obvious solution is to create more co-ops and paid internships, but these programs are notoriously difficult to scale because of the labor involved with creating and maintaining them.

Another option is to embed more real-world, work-based projects directly into college courses. Unfortunately, institutions and companies often lack the resources to devote to these programs, too.

A work-based project had a profound impact on me when I was in college. My professor brought in the CEO of a local technology company, who asked the class to help him on a project. Student engagement with the class skyrocketed. We were working on something that might be deployed in the real world, making professional connections, and strengthening our resumes.

Recent research shows my professor had the right idea. A 2022 study found that 55% of North American undergraduates are disengaged in their studies. Students in the same survey said colleges can regain their interest by incorporating company-led projects. 

My experience with the CEO was a lightbulb moment that changed the course of my life. While still a student, I co-founded a startup to help institutions and companies more easily facilitate experiential learning projects. Our goal was to provide students with work experience, help employers scout talent, and create a mutually beneficial pathway from college to career. It was built on the realization that colleges and employers are eager to collaborate, but they need support bridging the gap between them. 

California’s National University, for example, serves a student population primarily consisting of older, working, and military learners. These students are laser-focused on earning the skills they need to propel their careers forward. Dozens of National faculty have now used our platform to incorporate employer-created projects into their courses. Nearly 200 students have participated in the projects, developing professional skills for college credit and gaining real-world experience in fields as diverse as cybersecurity, digital marketing, and healthcare. 

Employer projects are just one of the many innovative approaches institutions are now investing in to bring more work-based learning opportunities to students. Colleges are exploring new apprenticeship models, remote internships, and industry-backed certifications. They are revamping their student employment and work-study programs.

Arizona State University, for instance, employs thousands of students every year, many of them in roles that are tightly aligned with their field of study. ASU works to ensure skills development is baked into these work experiences, allowing students to both earn a paycheck and gain important career-ready skills.  

Dana Stephenson, co-founder & CEO, Riipen

The nonprofit Education At Work, meanwhile, partners with institutions to help students find employment in customer service and back-office support at a wide range of companies. Students can earn a salary and receive tuition assistance while developing essential, in-demand competencies.

Students who participate in Education at Work’s learning model are more likely to earn a degree and more likely to be working full-time after graduation than their peers. 

Building stronger pathways to work-based learning opportunities is critical to reversing the trend lines that are undermining confidence in higher education.

By fostering closer collaborations with employers and integrating work experience more directly into the college experience, institutions can ensure that the investments students make in their education translate into real-world success.

Dana Stephenson is the co-founder and CEO of Riipen, an online work-based learning marketplace for educators, students, and employers.

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