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Making Work Work Better

Awarding credit for work-based learning can be a powerful equity and retention-building strategy

By Rob Ducoffe

April 21, 2022

Experiential learning includes various enriching and relevance-building opportunities that colleges and universities recognize as part of a high-quality undergraduate curriculum. Among these opportunities are community-based (service) learning, undergraduate research, capstone projects, study abroad, cooperative education, and internships.

Separately, institutions often hear from employers that they are unable to recruit enough well-trained employees from universities. For the most part, however, university educators and employers stay in our separate lanes even though we have a strong mutual interest in well-educated graduates.

University of Wisconsin (UW)–Parkside serves first-generation, Pell-eligible, and racially diverse students who work while also attending college. Nevertheless, we operate as if we consider jobs as necessary distractions. They cut into the time available for course-related learning and conflict with opportunities for outside-of-class engagement that are a part of our ideal image of college.

Internships are components of this ideal college experience, a high-impact practice (HIP), and an important milestone for career planning and postgraduate employment for young adults. Internships, as described by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, help students integrate classroom learning with professional settings in fields they are considering as career paths and give employers opportunities to develop and evaluate talent.

Unfortunately, internships just don’t work for most of our undergraduates who already hold down jobs. Each year, only 6 to 8 percent of our students do internships for credit. In a 2018 survey by the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, 61 percent of UW–Parkside students indicated the biggest barrier to doing internships is “having a job.”

Why should an internship have status as a HIP and a full- or part-time job be an unworthy learning platform for a similar designation? Higher ed’s current practice disadvantages students who need to work while they attend university. A bias-busting finding from the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions survey is that UW–Parkside working students reported high levels of self-efficacy and career adaptability. They proactively manage their career development via the pursuit of career-congruent experiences, self-reflection, and independent career research. So, if educators expanded our view of experiential learning to be more inclusive of working students’ experiences, higher education could, using terminology coined by Complete College America, give working students a better deal.

Also, many internships are unpaid. For the typical student who takes a full course load and is personally responsible for college and other expenses, unpaid internships are a barrier to career development. The practice of awarding credit and integrating internships into the curriculum but not doing so for on-the-job learning signals that higher ed places greater value on the former. It also gives privileged students credit toward their degrees while denying working students similar opportunities. Should educators assume that employer expectations, commitment, and the quality of the work environment and learning possibilities are lower for paid jobs than for (often unpaid) internships? Further, would partnering with employers on an expanded array of work experiences for credit benefit our mutual interest in cocreating a larger talented workforce?

To begin to answer these questions, my colleagues at UW–Parkside, led by Theresa Castor, professor of communication and director of internships, have created a work-based experiential learning course that will count toward fulfilling our campus’s general education requirements, which include communication, reasoned judgment, and personal and social responsibility. The course, which will be offered for the first time in the fall 2022 semester, will permit students to utilize an existing work experience as a learning platform. Here is an excerpt from the syllabus:

Within the course, we focus on the world of work as a life experience, beginning by first developing your “work autobiography” to reflect on how you developed your assumptions about the world of work. From there, we examine the concepts of organizational socialization and organizational culture to understand work and workplaces as instances of communication where part of understanding how to successfully enter a workplace involves understanding communication, no matter what the job is actually about. Continuing on the theme of communication, we will study and you will develop skills in creating communication products and performances for successful job entry such as developing a resume and cover letter, interviewing, and networking. The course will culminate in your development and presentation of a work-based learning portfolio.

We believe that recognizing work-based learning as a legitimate form for which we award credit, and offering this to students earlier in their academic careers when they are seeking purpose and are more likely to discontinue their studies, will be a powerful equity and retention-building strategy.

As we specify learning goals, develop a set of academic deliverables, and establish academic supervision that is compensated and where the onus on finding employment rests with students—and with the engagement of employer supervisors—we plan to award academic credit for non-internship work our students already do. This will remove the structural barrier our students face in obtaining academically guided work experience for credit, help them progress toward degree-completion, and strengthen university-employer collaboration in talent development, a critical economic development challenge in our region. Robust assessment will help establish whether we can make work work better for our students.


  • Rob Ducoffe

    Rob Ducoffe

    Rob Ducoffe is provost and vice chancellor at the University of Wisconsin–Parkside.