Is a college co-op model the future of higher education?
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When graduates are unprepared for the working world, corporate America should work with universities to help solve the problem.

By Colleen Leahey and Cameron Chisholm
July 31, 2014

Should college students spend the four years after high school merging their minds with their hearts and experiences, ultimately building a self? Or should they focus on skills and talents that will let them dive headfirst into the workplace as soon as the cap and gown come off? Former Yale University English professor William Deresiewicz argued the first case in last week’s The New Republic cover story, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League.” But in 2013, Inc. magazine surveyed the CEOs of the Inc. 5000: 76% said finding qualified talent was a major problem.

This disconnect between academia and corporations isn’t new. “Companies used to not care that you didn’t have hard skills,” says Jeff Selingo, author of College (Un)bound: The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Students. Work ethic was required—and the technical skills were learned on the job through formal and informal training. But Anthony Carnevale, Director and Research Professor at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, says the 1980 recession changed everything; the skill level required for entry level positions went up and formal training programs declined, so prospective employees began paying more money to those with more education (and therefore, more skills).

Today, employers want workers with both general skills (problem solving, critical thinking, and communication skills) and technical skills specific to their desired profession. Higher education has become a necessary stepping-stone to a career, but, as McKinsey and Company’s 2013 Voice of the Graduate report found, one in three college graduates feel they are unprepared for employment.

“Liberal arts curriculum doesn’t pay like it used to,” Carnevale says. “They’re highly educated, but [there is] a lack of fit.” Engineers and scientists, for example, are trained to work alone. In a world where employers are looking for broader skill sets, this is a disadvantage.

Last week, United States Vice President Joe Biden announced the “Ready to Work: Job-Driven Training and American Opportunity” initiative, which addresses Americans’ professional unpreparedness. (Biden’s solution? Apprenticeships.) There are also post-grad courses like the Fullbridge Program and Dartmouth’s Tuck Business Bridge Program that hope to teach students technical and team building skills.

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Several universities have been combatting the skills gap tension for decades by weaving professional experience into students’ college curriculum. Drexel University adopted a co-operative program in 1919 and it now has over 1,600 corporate partners worldwide (like Lockheed Martin LMT , Boeing BA , PECO, nonprofits, government agencies, and more). It takes students five years to receive their undergraduate degree—and during those five years, they partake in three six-month co-ops, making about $45,000 over 18-total months. The format seems like an obvious solution to many colleges’ woes: It helps teach students both hard and soft skills, while also providing them with an easy means to combat student debt. Drexel President John Fry says the co-op structure also challenges his university’s professors to keep their work current. “[Co-op experience] brings a richer dialogue to the classroom. People are holding onto old forms of pedagogy. This is a far more dynamic and experiential way for students to learn.” Fry adds that 88% of co-op employers say they would hire students for future co-ops or fulltime positions and that one third of Drexel’s graduating class accepts fulltime employment with one of the co-ops.

So what’s keeping other colleges from mimicking Drexel’s structure? Money and tradition. “There are significant barriers to entry to a co-op program,” says Fry. He explains that Drexel’s co-op program has forty to fifty year relationships with companies in the area, and as a result a co-op is “an expensive and complicated thing to start from scratch.” But Fry adds that the employer community is very responsive to institutions wanting to work with them. Take IBM IBM : It partners with schools like Northeastern, University of Arizona, and Elon to create co-op opportunities for students.

Elite brands—like Ivy League universities—are also less likely to adapt a co-op model. Georgetown’s Carnevale points out that many students at those universities spend their undergrad years studying liberal arts and then glean technical skills in graduate school. “There will be class bias,” says Carnevale. “If you can afford it, you can have it both ways.” But public universities may soon feel the pressure to examine their institutions’ structures. Says Carnevale, “Given cost, parents and students will demand that whatever they take in college will get them a job.”

Carnevale says the real test will come in 2017, when he predicts American will have full employment. “At that point, employers won’t have all these people running around begging for jobs,” he explains, adding they’ll be more willing to work with universities. Until then, Carnevale says that students should view college as an investment. There’s what he calls the lucky third – the 30% of American students who don’t have any loan debt—but the rest aren’t so fortunate. “The follow your dream thing is fine, but then a lot of these kids wake up and it’s a nightmare. They have $200,000 in debt.“

Co-ops may not be the right choice for every university. But as more students continue to accrue debt and find themselves on their parents’ couches post-college, the structure is certainly one to be considered.

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