The rising price tag of a college education has sparked a debate about the college experience. There are those who favor a shift toward online education, believing that separating the content (the professor's teachings) from the delivery (the physical classroom) will reduce expenses and increase flexibility, all without harming the quality of the education. Then there are those who believe that the most powerful learning has and always will take place inside the classroom, where the professor and students are able to engage in a face-to-face dialogue.
I propose that there is a third, largely untapped source of learning that doesn't receive nearly enough attention in this debate: the outside-of-the-classroom learning that occurs during co-curricular content and activities.
The underlying issue is the paradox of cost versus value. On the one hand, we are right to be concerned about the high cost of a college education, but on the other hand we can't lose sight of the quality of academic experience. It is essential to prepare work-ready graduates who can make a positive impact in their organization and in society.
For millennials and Generation Z, that dynamic is changing. The average American will now hold as many as 12 jobs in their working life. That means shorter tenures, multiple careers, and the necessity for a wider skill set. Clearly, colleges face a complex challenge in terms of developing a pipeline of prepared graduates for the global workforce.
The majority of employers consider it critical for college graduates to demonstrate the ability to apply learning in real-world settings, but a minority of them believe that college grads are capable of applying what they've learned inside the classroom to work outside of the classroom. I take this divide to mean several things. First, it shows that colleges aren't doing enough to give their students real-world focused experiences both inside and outside of the classroom. Second, it affirms that there is a need to get students more engaged. Both can be accomplished through a regimen of outside-of-the-classroom learning opportunities.
Although the reasons for student outcomes in college are multifaceted and cannot be easily distilled down to a single factor, research consistently shows that college students who are actively engaged in educationally purposeful activities both inside and outside of the classroom are more likely to persist and ultimately reach graduation than are their disengaged peers.
Consider that the average full-time college student spends 12-15 hours per week in class and between 20 hours (average) to 40 hours (recommended) per week on academic preparation. This leaves roughly 60 hours (minus sleeping time) per week that is unstructured, detached from academic content and thus underutilized for the purpose of career and professional development.
Recent research shows that students' engagement in meaningful co-curricular activities has a strong impact on intellectual skill development, overall college adjustment, practical skill growth, and positive self-image. In fact, some research finds that time spent devoted to academic preparation, when in combination with purposeful activities outside of the classroom, increases persistence in college as well as overall grade point average. Therefore, besides simply asking ourselves how to reduce incremental costs, we need to ask ourselves what can be done to make the activities students spend their time on outside the classroom more impactful.
At the University of Pittsburgh, we have developed the competency-based Outside the Classroom Curriculum (OCC) program to organize students' activities into a meaningful educational experience that complements their academic plan. We are learning that time spent outside of the classroom is not without value; it is an untapped resource that can be leveraged to prepare students to fill the talent gap companies are facing.
As educators, we must broaden our perspective on how and where meaningful learning takes place, especially for today's students. We must turn our attention to how we can add value to the college experience and challenge our assumptions of where learning takes place. This will require developing innovative tools that extend the college learning experience to outside the limited physical walls of our traditional classrooms. As challenges and debates about the cost of higher education continue, we have a unique opportunity to add into this dialogue by shifting the discussion away from one of cost to one of value.