The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated inequalities in educational opportunity and employment, and it’s time for a new approach to connecting education and work to close the gaps.
In the workforce, people of color have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic—with higher unemployment rates for racial and ethnic minorities compared to white workers. Meanwhile, African American and Hispanic students have been more likely to take leaves of absence from higher education, and are now enrolling at lower rates. And lower-income African American and Hispanic students have been more likely to be learning remotely during the pandemic and have less access to computers and high-speed internet.
Before the pandemic hit, a growing movement in corporate America was focused on increasing economic mobility by removing bias in hiring, through the embrace of skills-based hiring practices that eliminate a blind reliance on degrees as gateways to jobs. In a 2018 national survey, we found that half of U.S. employers were either exploring or already engaging in this competency-based hiring strategy—which was at the time due to both a tight job market and an interest in more equitable hiring. Recent research has further supported the idea that tens of millions of Americans—many of them individuals of color—have the skills to move into higher wage jobs, but are limited by employers’ focus on educational credentials, particularly degrees.
Employers had already shown signs of rethinking the relationship between credentials and economic opportunity. That is now being amplified by the pandemic economy and a growing social justice movement, which has led to an even greater focus among employers on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategies. Earlier this month for example, a group of 80 major corporations led by the Business Roundtable announced a new effort to “advance racial equity and justice and reduce the economic opportunity gap in communities of color”—anchored in new approaches to hiring and promotion.
Due to this confluence of economic and societal factors, this is clearly a moment to rethink how education and the workforce interconnect.
In the past, the pathway to economic opportunity was too often painted as a false dichotomy: Either pursue formal learning or work experience; degrees or apprenticeships; college prep or tracking into vocational education.
There is a way, though, to combine traditional education and real-world work experience—both theory and application: experiential learning. But access to experiential learning opportunities is not evenly available to all groups. And even in programs that promise to help students prepare for high-paying STEM professions, Black and Hispanic students in such programs are too often tracked into lower-skilled jobs than other students.
Uniting Education and Work Through Experiential Learning
Experiential learning has received a groundswell of interest worldwide recently, in response to demands for employability and better educational outcomes. Lately this meant government and employer support for apprenticeships. However, the experiential continuum also includes a variety of more popular and often more scalable models—including internships, cooperative education, practical placements, and increasingly, online projects, which have been surging since the pandemic.
The limited but growing body of research on experiential learning suggests it can deliver superior educational outcomes by facilitating practice and feedback, increasing student motivation and helping students achieve higher rates of employment and wages. However, access is a key problem in scaling up these models—especially access to intentionally designed, academically integrated work experiences that are linked to quality educational credentials.
Leveraging Experiential Learning Models to Drive Greater Equity
While experiential learning is not a panacea, it’s an under-used model that can help achieve greater educational and economic opportunity for students and workers of color. In such programs, students work on real-world projects that enable them to apply their academic knowledge, while learning professional skills and technical skills. Being able to practice their skills in a supportive environment while engaging in reflection gives them the opportunity to increase their belief that they can accomplish professional and career related tasks and mindsets. In other words, students are able to develop their self-efficacy—which is important for all learners, but it has been identified as especially important for women and students of color in the STEM workforce pipeline.
These experiences also allow students to develop the soft skills that employers say they want, often from the relationships they build with industry professionals, mentors, and peers. Working in an office or manufacturing setting, for example, enables students to learn ways of knowing, being and behaving that are very different from the actions that are required sitting in a traditional classroom setting. Real-world work experience also enables students to develop crucial social and cultural capital and professional networks, and facilitates the discovery and exploration of a variety of career options.
To truly leverage experiential learning for equity, however, industry partners and educators need to be aware of the limitations of their own experiences and potential biases. Engaging with students through experiential learning enables employers and supervisors to diversify their workforce, face and consider different perspectives, and reflect on potential biases. To work with students and build their self-efficacy, facilitators of learning - educators and employers - must be able to see the strengths and potential in learners, despite long-standing stereotypes. Culturally sustaining pedagogies within experiential learning utilize student and community knowledge and can bring new ways of solving problems and creativity within industry.
Making Experiential Learning for Equity a Reality
At Northeastern University, we have long been recognized for the institution’s century-old experiential learning model. Increasingly, we are playing a role in researching these models, engaging employers on these issues and piloting new approaches. High quality experiential learning requires a cultural commitment and strategy, structure and resources. Scaling the approach to benefit all students will require greater awareness and capacity among educational institutions and employers.
Creating the infrastructure to expand access to experiential learning opportunities is paramount—especially for students of color and in the institutions and programs that could benefit from it most.
Consider, for example, America’s community colleges, where the student population is today majority non-white. Two-year institutions are being recognized as engines of economic mobility, and a number of community colleges are early pioneers in integrating work and learning.
Interest in experiential learning extends to K-12 education as well, where the model is being embraced through project-based learning along with other formats. Northeastern University along with K-12 school partners, through the Network for Experiential Teaching and Learning (NExT) collaborate throughout the year sharing models and best practices for teachers, students, and industry.
Eliminating barriers to student participation is also important—and research has suggested these often include a lack of placement options in their region or discipline; scheduling conflicts; or the inability to take on work given other obligations.
Expanding access to experiential learning will also require a much larger pool of employers and industries engaged with the education system and offering and managing job and project opportunities for students. Employers are seeking to diversify their workforce and create new early talent pipelines. But often they don’t realize that experiential learning programs can be a strategic recruitment vehicle integrated into their broader human capital planning, rather than just a community engagement effort. Employers can benefit from toolkits, best practices and a better understanding of the ROI of experiential learning programs—each areas that require more practical work and study.
Finally, government policy (especially given a new presidential administration in 2021) can also shape the expansion of experiential learning opportunities. Canadian provinces such as Ontario, for example, provide employers with refundable tax credits to incentivize cooperative education experiences for students. And, a whole new class of technology firms and systems is emerging to help institutions, educators and employers to structure and deliver experiential learning opportunities to students, increasingly in digital and mobile forms.
John Dewey once wrote that there is a “danger of creating an undesirable split between the experience gained in more direct associations and what is acquired in school.” Today, consistent with the experiments of this past year and the assumptions that the education world was forced to confront in 2020, it is time for learning to extend beyond the walls of the classroom, in ways that are more equitable and better integrated with the needs of industry and communities.