We need to blend liberal arts, workplace experience

Internships, real-world experience are key part of the equation

A LIBERAL ARTS college education has always been viewed as a foundation for a career or for advanced study in a graduate or professional program. The notion has been to give students broad knowledge, and the workplace world would mold the graduate into a professional with the requisite training and experience.

That view may be a bit short-sighted.

Our knowledge-based economy is demanding that colleges and universities prepare students with the particular skills to succeed in the workplace. That means that undergraduate programs must adapt and evolve, to put a major emphasis on professional development. It also means that the state must continue to support its public universities in this effort.

One way to do this is through internships and experiential education. We must continue to make this a much more significant component of an undergraduate education, including requiring participation in internships or co-op programs and providing the funding that can make internship possible for students.

Employers have made their feelings clear. In a survey funded by Newman’s Own Foundation last year and conducted by Hart Research Associates on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, only 34 percent of business executives and 25 percent of hiring managers said that graduates have the requisite skills and knowledge to advance, even if they were prepared for their entry-level job.

The reality is that students want—and need—experiential education. At Westfield State University, close to half of our students are participating in either internships or career-focused practicums, and this high level of participation results from almost $300,000 in scholarship funding of internships raised among our alumni.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has been our partner in this effort, providing critical funding for internships. For the upcoming fiscal year, however, only the House of Representatives has included this funding, so we hope for a compromise in conference committee that will enable our comprehensive internship program to continue.

For those who make excuses about the scarcity of internships for schools located away from metropolitan areas, we are over two hours from Boston and our immediate area has higher unemployment than the state average. Yet, internships are encouraged, identified, and completed to the benefit of our graduates.

Of the 30 percent of the class of 2017 that responded to our postgraduate survey sent one year after commencement, 70 percent indicated that they had participated in an internship while at the university. Practical and experiential opportunities are an emphasized component of the The Westfield State Experience—a defined four-year road map for students to optimize engagement while in school and improve outcomes upon graduation. High-impact practices – including undergraduate research and creative activity, service learning, study abroad, and internships – are emphasized heavily – especially during students’ junior year.

Preferences from employers and data on student outcomes underscore that we, as leaders in higher education, should continue to ramp-up our experiential education emphasis on campus.

The classic liberal arts education is as relevant as ever. To make the successful transition from student to professional, women and men need to think critically, problem-solve, persuade others, and “read the room.” These “universal skills” are imperative. However, practical experience will serve as a game-changer for potential job candidates.

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If we don’t couple theoretical education with real-world situations, we are shortchanging today’s college students. We must create the structure that provides students with ample opportunities for varied internships, externships, and co-ops so that they can get different types of experience along the way to test out their chosen profession. This will help them visualize themselves as their workplace peers during such internships. The state must be our partner in this effort.

Move away from liberal arts? Never. Make it more relevant through the real-world experiences gained from experiential education? That is a must.

Ramon S. Torrecilha is president of Westfield State University.