Many academics have long been proponents of “laboratory” initiatives in the humanities, social sciences, professional and graduate programs that translate academic learning into real world experience.
These initiatives serve a variety of purposes. They make critical inquiry more pragmatic. Most colleges and universities build their academic program on the traditions of the liberal arts. It’s an education that provides a broad and encompassing view of the world. The best liberal arts programs teach students to think not by memorizing but by better integrating what they learn into a comprehensive understanding of an issue. They graduate with an ability to write, articulate their positions, apply quantitative methods, use technology, and work in a collaborative setting.
As an employer, would you rather have an engineer trained in the liberal arts or one trained more narrowly as an engineer without these additional skills?
Arguably, both have similar technical skill sets. But in the first case, the liberal arts engineer also enters the workforce with a capacity to move beyond the narrow technical training to contribute earlier and more meaningfully to his employer. Put in other terms, an engineer trained in the liberal arts is the more logical hire, if the quality of the engineering training is roughly equivalent.
In a sense, it’s the softness of traditional arguments supporting the liberal arts that obfuscates the case for an educational foundation based upon the liberal arts, in whatever field.
The historic argument – which I continue to believe and advocate as a former college and university president – is that the liberal arts create both educated citizens and train graduates for life.
It’s a good political argument but insufficiently pragmatic to address the needs of prospective applicants and their future employers.
Pragmatic Argument for the Liberal Arts
Market demands change with new workforce demands each day.
To offset this shift, colleges and universities have enhanced their liberal arts foundation by expanding the scope and range of their career counseling centers. For undergraduates, they offer more robust internships and externships, technical help in application writing, and increased connections to alumni and parents who are in a position to assist them with employment.
The better career centers also move beyond the “easy sell” degrees like business, management, and engineering. They invigorate the job market prospects for humanists, social scientists, and others for whom career centers are insufficient counselors.
Bridging Gaps in Pathway from Education to Employment
Yet there is an important gap in creating a seamless pathway between education and employment. Some students need to fill in their time outside the classroom with completing their academic projects. Others must work to meet expenses – especially independent adult students who often have outside responsibilities that place additional pressure on them. The result is that many students have limited ability to access some of the newer “real world” initiatives; despite the broadening effect these experiences have to improve their entry into the labor market.
Northeastern’s Experiential Network: Short-Term, Real Life Collaborations
To answer this problem, Northeastern University in Boston created the Experiential Network (XN). In this program, students work virtually with a sponsoring business or non-profit organization on a short-term project over a six-week period. Northeastern designed the program for graduate and professional students. Students and sponsors work closely to produce deliverables for their employers to inform critical business decisions.
Dr. Charles Kilfoye, senior director of XN, reports: “Employers believe that there is a skills gap in which students must be acculturated to the shifting demands of the job market.” He argues that many adult learners cannot devote more time or interrupt their full-time work schedules to participate in other Northeastern offerings like the co-op program, so they benefit enormously from these more flexible, limited term collaborations.
There are numerous advantages for students who participate in the XN Network:
- The XN Network allows students to apply classroom theory to practice in a collaborative setting.
- As part of the selection process, students grow their professional networks since they choose where they will interview and work. Each student gets between three and five matches from which to choose.
- For many employers, these graduate and professional students often demonstrate maturity that more traditional undergraduates lack.
These projects also align with an academic course, worked through Northeastern’s XN offices. Their students devote about 35 hours over the six weeks to their project. Dr. Kilfoye suggests that Northeastern anticipates market trends and effectively “‘future proofs’ its students by keeping pace with what’s happening in the broader world.”
To ensure success, each project has formative and summative surveys as well as a mid-term review. Students are placed in a wide range of venues that also allows them to think more broadly about how their degrees relate to the shifting demands of the job market.
Student Rupali Agrawal, a graduate student earning an MS in Project Management, said of his XN experience:
“Being a full-time student and executing an XN project takes you out of your comfort zone, and gives you the opportunity to learn professional skill sets. It prepared me to face professional responsibilities. Learning professional communication etiquette through my Experiential Network project was one of the most valuable things I learned. As an international student, the way we communicate in my country is different from communication here in the United States. Being able to learn these skills before entering the professional world is very valuable. The beauty of doing an XN project is that it’s an opportunity for students to get practical work experience, delivered right to students.”
This article was first published on the Edvance Foundation blog.