What if students could earn work experience, wages and university credits at the same time?
Sounds too good to be true? Not really. Colleges have already come up with a model for this by offering work-based courses, which pair students with businesses and other organizations to solve real-world problems.
With COVID-19 normalizing remote work, creating this kind of program is easier than ever. Business schools at several leading universities, including Stanford, MIT and Berkeley, include an increasing number of work-based courses in their curriculum, allowing students to work on various challenges, such as growing a startup or reducing homelessness in California.
My experience helping to design and teach a work-based course on product management as a business-school student at Stanford showed me how beneficial the program can be for students, employers and universities.
As of now, students often develop practical business skills at the expense of spending time on academics. But although Stanford’s business school forbids first-year students from interning, many secretly work for startups or venture capital firms to hone practical skills. Moreover, most internships are unpaid and secured through connections. Students from less-affluent backgrounds, often racial minorities, may feel forced to choose between supporting themselves through odd jobs or doing unpaid internships to get ahead. Few can choose the latter.
In the product management work-based course that I helped to create, students spent a semester designing products to solve real, strategic problems that a well-known social media platform faces. For example, one student team designed a feature that would facilitate creation of more high-quality posts in the platform. While working, students receive industry exposure and mentorship from senior product managers and other stakeholders from the company. As they would have done in a great product-management internship, students developed practical skills and built track records for their resumes. And on top of that, they also earned credits that counted toward their degree.
In addition to those big benefits, work-based courses enable universities to ensure a consistent, high-quality learning experience by sourcing and filtering projects and checking that all work and guidance given to students by employers is educational. Students learn from and support each other, and professors teach students essential skills and help connect classroom lessons to their work projects. In contrast, unpaid internships that are hosted by companies alone sometimes don’t really offer much value to students—their quality varies significantly. Although students did not receive pay through the Stanford course I helped to lead, that benefit is available through some work-based courses, such as those in Bunker Hill Community College’s learn and earn program.
Work-based learning courses benefit employers, too, more than the traditional standalone summer internship model. With a minimum investment of writing a project brief and participating in a 30-minute weekly Zoom call, companies get fresh perspectives from students and innovative and theoretically rigorous solutions to their problems. Universities can work with employers to identify suitable projects for their students, train students beforehand and provide additional mentorship and supervision. Similar to summer internships but with lower time and resource commitments, companies can use these programs to promote themselves as prospective employers and identify potential full-time hires. Considering the current labor market and that most companies do poorly with hiring, they may need it.
Universities have always been suspicious of work-centric training programs, such as a growing number of coding boot camps, for good reasons. They believe that such programs are often cash grabs and deliver neither career outcomes nor solid theoretical foundations. “We teach students how to think,” my professors often say. Yet university educations are also criticized for not keeping up with shifting industry trends and preparing students for the workforce. Work-based courses move universities closer to industry trends and improve their career outcomes.
It’s time for universities to evolve when it comes to job training, or else they will risk becoming obsolete.