The Experiential Learning Advantage for Workforce Preparedness

As we continue to understand the impact of an experiential education model on various aspects of a student’s success, one increasingly relevant question centers on the long-term impact of repeated, authentic experiences on student preparedness for the workforce. This is particularly relevant in an era where investigations of college graduate preparedness for the workforce are showing that students are perceived by employers to be underprepared upon graduation (e.g., Hart Associates, 2015; Deloitte, 2015).

Northeastern University, with its signature experiential learning model, provides the ideal test-bed to investigate whether such a model leads to graduates who are perceived to be better prepared than the general college graduate population for the workforce. The origins of this model date back a century to when co-operative education opportunities provided students, who might otherwise not have the financial means to afford a college education, the opportunity to pursue a degree in higher education. Over the years, this model has grown to be centered on career and academic pursuits. This focus has a significant impact on students’ securing positions after graduation – with 89% of Northeastern students reporting they are employed nine months after graduation in an area related to their field of study. However, this finding does not address whether any differences exist in these students’ preparedness for the workplace when compared to students who are joining the workforce after graduating from an institution that does not have an experiential learning model.

The present study was focused on gaining a better understanding of such differences, should any exist. A survey distributed to 1,002 employers representing 25 industries (see Table 1 for number of employers as a function of industry) revealed that 49% of employers perceived recent college graduates to be prepared for the workforce as opposed to 89% of employers of recent Northeastern graduates (see Figure 1).

Furthermore, when asked more specific questions about this preparedness, there was a distinct difference in their perception of college graduate preparedness in the skills and attributes necessary for college graduates to have for employment (see Table 2 for a list of skills and attributed aggregated from from NACE 2015; Hart Associates, 2015; Manpower Group 2015).

On a six-point scale (1= recent graduates were underprepared and 6=recent graduates were well-prepared), Northeastern students were perceived by employers to be statistically significantly better prepared across all skills and attributes but one when compared to the perceptions of employers who had not worked with the Northeastern graduate population. This difference was the greatest for leadership skills with a one-point difference and the smallest (and non-significant) for computer and technical skills. It is important to note that the lack of statistical significance did not indicate that students all around were not prepared. As Figure 2 illustrates, computer and technical skill preparation was seen to be high across all graduates, including Northeastern’s.

Furthermore, when Northeastern employers were asked to evaluate those recent graduates they had worked with who had not graduated from Northeastern University, the difference between the two groups was insignificant. In fact, both groups were rated statistically significantly higher than the general population, suggesting that Northeastern recent graduates were working amongst peers who, like them, were better prepared for employment. In fact, as Figure 3 illustrates, when these employers were asked whether recent Northeastern graduates were afforded opportunities because of their skills, attributes, and/or experiences as compared to their non-Northeastern employees, participants resoundingly responded that this was the case. Specifically, Northeastern graduates were given higher levels of responsibility, access to jobs, leadership opportunities, diverse types of tasks, and access to opportunities that others might not have received.

Additional research is currently underway to unpack what these latter findings imply. That said, the difference in the perceived preparedness of graduates from an institution that has, as its differentiator, an experiential education model where students are provided with multiple authentic, real-world experiences to broaden their learning, is clear. While the present article does not attempt to say that these skills and attributes are only possible through such an educational model, it does suggest that such a model, where a majority of students work in multiple six month co-ops with employers1, provides students with the specific opportunities to gain the skills and attributes necessary to succeed in the environments that they graduate into.

METHODS

Participants. Of the 1,002 national employers who responded to the survey, 337 reported that they had worked with a recent Northeastern University graduate while 665 employers reported that they had not worked with this population. Participants provided informed consent at the end of the study to control for any biases that might have come from their awareness of the source of the survey. The employers represented 24 different industries as defined by the United States Census (http://www.census.gov/cgi-bin/sssd/naics/naicsrch?chart=2012).

Design. The online survey was specifically designed to control for numerous possible alternative interpretations of the data. All participants were asked about the industry that they worked in followed by an indication of their perception of overall readiness of recent graduates (defined as students who had graduated in the last three years) for the workforce. Following this, they were asked to indicate how prepared they perceived students to be as a function of 9 skills and 12 attributes on a scale from 1 to 6 (see Table 2). Those who indicated that they had worked with a recent Northeastern University graduate were asked to answer questions about their perceptions of readiness based on specific skills and attributes for: (1) Northeastern students; and (2) for the general college graduate. The order with which participants identified preparedness of skills and attributes (Northeastern first or General first) was randomized between participants.

Procedure. The survey was distributed by a third party research group to ensure that all participants would not be unaware of the source of the survey when they began. The survey links were distributed via email with a return email that was agnostic to Northeastern. Each survey link was only functional for one entry in the study. Participants were reimbursed for their time through the third party group based on survey completion.

Alternate Explanations for Results: Specific design elements were utilized to control for the following potential biases. Furthermore, alternate explanations were statistically tested and showed insignificance:

  • Order Effects (response bias that can occur when questions that are asked first in a survey could influence responses in later questions): This response bias was mitigated by randomizing the order in which respondents viewed the questions about recent Northeastern University graduates or recent college graduates in general. Overall, there were no statistical differences in the opinion of recent college graduates, based on which set of items were presented to the respondent first.
  • Demand characteristics (response bias that can occur because respondents are aware of or believe that they are aware of the intentions of the researcher): This response bias was mitigated by not indicating who was sponsoring the study until after respondents completed the survey. The informed consent process at the beginning of the survey used a generic Gmail account. Participants were not aware of whether or not Northeastern was the only university they were going to be asked to respond about or if other participants were being asked about other universities. Once all of the questions were answered, information about the fact that Northeastern University was the sponsor of the research was revealed and contact information was provided.
  • Fenno’s paradox (phenomenon wherein respondents express dislike of a group but, at the same time, express like for specific members of that group with which the respondents have an affiliation): The findings indicate that this phenomenon, or paradox, is not evident in this study because those employers familiar with recent Northeastern University graduates also rated all recent graduates generally at a comparable level of preparedness. Furthermore, if this paradox arises from potential order effects (such as seeing the general group first or the members first), the results indicated that there was no significant difference between seeing either group first.
  • Confirmation bias (the tendency of the researcher to seek and interpret information in a way that confirms preconceptions about the outcome): Although the results of this study shine a positive light on Northeastern University, the researchers took several precautions to avoid pointing respondents in that direction: 1) The sample of respondents was drawn nationally using a well-reputed surveying company; 2) By withholding knowledge about the sponsor of the survey until respondents finished the survey, we proactively prevented one source of potential response bias; 3) Question randomization was used to test whether or not being asked about recent Northeastern University graduates had an influence on later responses, which it did not; and 4) The questions themselves were written in a non-leading fashion and gave respondents equal opportunity to indicate positive or negative impressions of recent college graduates and recent Northeastern University graduates.

About Northeastern University’s Experiential Learning Model. Northeastern University’s signature experiential educational model consists of multiple, varied, and, at times, integrated opportunities for students to gain authentic, real-world experiences to apply and build the necessary mastery of the skills necessary in their disciplines. The model originated in 1909 to provide students with the opportunity to attend college by way of an “earn-to-learn” model. In the ensuing years, the model evolved to become one that provides students with an edge upon graduation by providing them with potentially over one and a half years of experience in national and international organizations. Over the last decade, this model has evolved even further to provide students with not only a head start upon graduation, but an advantage in their academic endeavors by having the opportunities to experience the models, theories, and practices that they learn about applied in real-world settings and practice the skills necessary for their disciplines in the very environments they will use them upon graduation.


1 In 2015, 35% of the graduating class had completed 3 or more co-ops, while 76% had been on at least 2 co-ops and 95% had been on at least one co-op.