Experiential learning should be mandatory

WEB-field school-penn state news-flickr copyOf the many problems that face the latest batches of 20-something undergraduate degree holders, like living with the existence of Grown Ups 2, or being unable to buy alcohol at grocery stores, perhaps the greatest are unemployment and a lack of employable skills. A large gap exists between what is taught in many degree programs and what is needed to be employed in the field that a particular degree leads to, which results in difficulty obtaining gainful employment.

A solution to this issue is mandating experiential learning, or learning through practicing a skill, as part of an undergraduate degree.

As Canada progresses further into the 21st century, a university education is becoming less and less valuable. The Financial Post reports cost of a bachelor’s degree is 20 per cent higher than it was in the late 2000s, while the unemployment rate for those who complete the degree is just under two percent lower than high school graduates.

While fields with tangible applications such as engineering, math, computer science, and commerce-related areas do tend to fare better in terms of earning potential and employability, there is no reason the same utility cannot be added to many other areas of study through the use of experiential learning.

Experiential learning already exists at most universities across the country as Co-operative Education programs. However, with the exception of some programs in Applied Sciences, these opportunities are optional and undertaken by a disproportionately small number of students. One only has to look towards trade programs, which integrate mandatory practicums into their curriculums, to see that they provide the necessary skills to train prospective workers for the so-called ‘real world.’

Some might say, though, that the goal of universities is solely to create more enlightened and educated individuals rather than train workers. But university students who are currently facing a hostile job market and mounting debt would most likely argue with this. The employment market has evolved from rewarding any degree holder with a position in their field to a more competitive model valuing experience over education. Therefore, eventually higher education needs to adjust its aims towards the needs of the provincial and national job market.

If academia can learn anything from trade schools and vocational programs, it is that in-class works cannot be used as a substitute for actual on-the-job training. What is learned in a textbook or from a professor tends to be based in idealistic theory rather than a pragmatic approach to the material.

Therefore, a mandatory practicum-system implemented into all undergraduate degrees would not only improve the student’s employability, but his or her learning experience as well. After all, if you would not hire a plumber who had never snaked a drain before, why then would you hire a public relations officer who had never drafted a press release?