Even before the pandemic, American colleges and universities faced a daunting, three-fold challenge.

How could we compete for a smaller pool of high school graduates as result of changing demographics? How should we respond to growing public pressure to hold down tuition and fees? And how would we meet students’ rising expectations that college degrees do more to open doors to career and workplace?

And then, the pivot to virtual learning amid COVID-19 fundamentally altered college life — adding yet another hurdle to enrolling freshmen classes in the numbers and with the same academic promise as before the crisis hit and our campuses shut down.

All of us in higher education are trying to chart a viable path forward for our institutions now, ensuring that we not only attract highly qualified students and prepare them for productive, well-rounded lives but also balance our budgets while continuing to invest in both academic excellence and active engagement in the myriad challenges facing our society. Except perhaps for our best-endowed peers, we know there are no easy choices, so what do we tackle first? In my view, there’s one way to go that happens to address all these challenges.

We know that today’s students, and their families, want to ensure that college is not only a time of intellectual growth, but a clear on-ramp to successful careers. So I’m convinced that an essential strategy for success in a changing academic landscape is to deepen the connection between a changing workplace, rigorous classroom curricula, and pioneering faculty research. Students and faculty both want to make a difference in the world, through both hands-on problem-solving and evidence-based solutions. By weaving real-world work experiences into the teaching and learning process, colleges and universities could, in one fell swoop, up their game in competing for fewer students, boost the value proposition of their diplomas, blunt cost concerns, and also provide the college-to-career link that so many students seek.

For those of us at institutions that have long emphasized such experiential learning, this obviously isn’t a completely new academic approach. But it’s a timely moment to double down on it.

“Greater attention than ever is being placed on how universities enable their graduates to achieve their career goals,” say the authors of a recent article by Michael Healy, Sara Hammer and Peter McIlveen for the journal Studies in Higher Education. Nor are such concerns unique to the United States. Cooperative learning spans many international borders, along with students’ appetite for it. Students surveyed at a U.K.-based university bluntly told researchers in 2018 that they expected “their investment in (higher education) to offer a net financial gain.” And U.S. News & World Report has acknowledged the significance of real-world learning experiences by regularly including a ranking for the nation’s top schools for experiential learning programs and internships.

Universities that are just beginning to expand their academic focus on experiential learning can look for role models in schools that have been steeped in cooperative education for more than a century. Northeastern, University of Cincinnati and the school that I lead, Drexel University, are just a few that have experience at this. They can also look closer to home where so many professional schools, from medicine to social work, have long required closely supervised internships and practicums as part of their degree programs.

At the undergraduate level, cooperative education addresses a conundrum faced by anyone new to the workforce. As one college career counselor framed the issue, it’s the proverbial problem of no job without experience and no experience without a job.In the early 20th century, Pennsylvania educator Herman Schneider — regarded as the founder of cooperative education — stated the premise quite simply: “If you want to educate a student to become an engineer, then you should provide that student with the opportunity to practice being an engineer.” By the end of the First World War, a number of colleges and universities, including Drexel, were doing just that.

At our university, thousands of students head off to full-time, 6-month co-op jobs each year around the country and, in pre-pandemic times, even internationally. Most of these positions are paid, with a median salary of $18,720. We partner with more than 1,500 businesses and institutions that employ them, including major players in health care, financial services, technology, engineering and design.

Even the pandemic-driven loss of face-to-face interactions did not scuttle co-op initiatives, though, to be sure, we faced short-term challenges in supplying meaningful job opportunities. As a result, this year approximately 6,000 students in more than 80 majors will participate in co-op — the largest in our university’s history. But it hasn’t been easy.

We filled the gap partly through a matching initiative to employ more co-ops on our own campus, creating more than 100 new and paid co-ops so far. One example: co-ops providing opportunities for public health, nursing and other health care students to help manage our COVID-19 testing and contact tracing centers.

Meanwhile, most co-op students successfully shifted to remote roles — in disciplines as varied as data analytics, land conservation and preservation, social justice, game design and others. We even created a remote international co-op allowing students to work with teams around the world, without traveling.

Going forward, we’re doubling down, by actively expanding the footprint and number of co-op opportunities with our existing employers. The Drexel Solutions Institute provides consulting and other innovation-driven services to companies across all sectors, which, in turn, will create more opportunities for both student employment and faculty research in evidence-based problem-solving.

Even with all the challenges, our fall and winter co-op cycle saw about 92% of students landing a virtual position, only slightly down from 98% in a normal academic year.

Looking beyond the pandemic, it’s also our vision to increase the number of students who diversify their co-op experiences by arranging their three 6-month employments so that one is in greater Philadelphia, one elsewhere in the United States, and the third overseas.

Leaning into a conscious strategy that re-emphasizes hands-on work experience not only makes good business sense for colleges and universities. It is a way for us to apply the creativity and civic commitment of our students and faculty to solving the economic, educational, social, and environmental challenges facing both our local communities and our global society.

It’s time to put more college students to work. It’s not only the kind of experiential learning they want from higher education. It’s what the nation and world need from our colleges and universities.

John Fry is president of Drexel University in Philadelphia.

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