Protecting an Integral Part of the Learning Experience

Different people learn in different ways. Some of us learn by reading, some by listening, some by watching, and some by doing. At colleges and universities, we want to reach all types of learners with all types of learning experiences--and internships are one way we accomplish this goal.

So as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit weighs two cases that deal with internships (Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures, Inc. and Wang v. Hearst Corp.), the American Council on Education and our member college and university presidents are contributing to the conversation. ACE and five other higher education associations filed a brief in Glatt that does not support either party, but makes the point that college students can benefit--educationally and otherwise--from these experiences. The brief also contends that colleges and universities should retain the ability to decide whether internships contribute to the students' education.

As a leader who represents college presidents, I simply cannot overstate the importance of allowing students the ability to engage in experiential learning as an integral part of the educational process.

Why "Experiential Learning"

The general premise behind a successful internship is that students get academic knowledge in classrooms or online, and then are able to apply it in a work environment while they continue to learn. Students then return to class where their coursework is informed by what they've experienced, and they share these ideas with their classmates.

Sometimes these opportunities lead to amazing successes--whether you are a mechanical engineering student who becomes the CEO of Xerox, like Ursula Burns, or you work as an intern for a heavy metal band and then rise to chairman, like Rob Cavallo of Warner Bros. Records (for more of these great stories, see this entertaining article).

But even if you do not wind up in the corner office, interns can gain a variety of invaluable skills throughout the process. A recent poll from Gallup and Purdue University (IN) showed that students who had internships that allowed them to apply classroom learning are more engaged in work and more likely to thrive in life. Moreover, some employers will not even consider someone for a job without some experiential learning--in one survey, 90 percent of new hires were former interns, and half of that number had been so at the company that eventually hired them.

It's Not Supposed to Be About Fetching Coffee

With nearly two-thirds of the class of 2013 seniors having been interns, or worked in co-op environments (according to the National Association of Colleges & Employers), it's critical that colleges and universities ensure these experiences are valuable. To put it frankly, if institutions are awarding credit for an internship, they want to ensure that you are not just fetching coffee or making copies.

Many institutions are working diligently to integrate experiential learning into degree programs. I will share a few from my colleagues:

  • New York University posts an Internship Directory, with more than 90 faculty and staff members that help students find the right internships--and get credit for their work.
  • The University at Albany has a similar directory, coupled with detailed credit and GPA requirements to ensure that students are prepared before they venture into experiential learning.
  • Vanderbilt University (TN) requires students to develop specific learning objectives for credit-bearing internships, whether through the Summer Internship Subsidy program or through a capstone internship in the Human and Organizational Development major.

It is clear that these efforts pay off. Survey data show that a majority of college students are very satisfied with their internships, and say they spent time on analytical work.

So as these cases await rulings, remember: learning in class will remain a key part of the academic process, but the special experiences that let students apply that knowledge are invaluable.

Molly Corbett Broad is president of the American Council on Education (ACE), the major coordinating body for higher education in the United States, with more than 1,800 members.

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