Work-based learning (WBL) refers to career preparation and training that occurs within a job setting, connects to classroom and academic experiences, and involves supervision and mentoring. Recent federal efforts like the Community College Apprenticeships initiative and state-driven programs like Pathways in Delaware have increased awareness of WBL and solidified it as a critical method for preparing students for high-wage, high-demand jobs. In general, there are four main models: apprenticeships, internships, cooperative education (co-ops), and practica and clinical experiences.
Despite recent expansion efforts, WBL programs in most places still lack clear frameworks for measuring student participation and outcomes. A new report from the Urban Institute sheds some much needed light on the WBL landscape and on-the-ground implementation efforts. The analysis focuses on community colleges, as they enroll millions of students in credit-bearing courses and noncredit workforce programs, have diverse student populations, and provide career-focused degree and certificate programs that require close collaboration with employers.
To understand the broader WBL picture, the authors examined existing research and national data sources such as the Adult Training and Education Survey and the Registered Apprenticeship Partners Information System. They also conducted interviews with national experts and state agencies. Overall, the data indicate that WBL opportunities are growing in number. Unfortunately, data also indicate that disparities in access, participation, and outcomes exist across WBL models for traditionally underrepresented groups such as women and people of color.
At the community college level, there are very few nationally representative data sources that focus on WBL. Research on outcomes—such as persistence toward degrees and certifications, post-WBL employment outcomes, retention rates, and wages—is limited. Registered apprenticeships have a stronger evidence base because they are tracked by the federal government. Results show that enrollees have higher earnings. In the ninth year after program enrollment, they earned on average almost $6,000 more a year than they would have if they hadn’t participated in an apprenticeship. Results for co-op programs, which alternate classroom learning with learning on the job, are varied. Some studies show they lead to impacts such as reduced time to finding employment and higher starting salaries, while others suggest these impacts fade over time. Internships, meanwhile, have very little research associated with their impact despite being extremely popular. One study found that longer-term, paid internship programs were associated with better outcomes than short-term, unpaid programs.
To better understand how WBL works on the ground, the authors interviewed representatives from six community colleges about their experiences implementing and measuring it. By and large, these schools offer WBL on a continuum that ranges from low-involvement career awareness activities to more intensive programs aimed at career preparation and training. Opportunities are usually linked to college credit and academic or instructional components. For example, one college offers an online WBL course that requires students to submit writing assignments throughout their experience. Several colleges have dedicated staff, such as a WBL coordinator, who is responsible for managing relationships with employers.
In terms of implementation, a persistent concern for all respondents was the structure of WBL for students who have full- and part-time jobs. If a student’s job is related to their program of study, colleges reported that they attempted to make accommodations to align the job with WBL recognized by the college. When that wasn’t possible, they attempted to be flexible in other ways, such as allowing students to complete their WBL experience over a longer period of time.
Unfortunately, gathering employment and outcome data seems to be mostly aspirational for these colleges. Some are able to access state wage records, but others are limited by privacy laws and other roadblocks. They typically rely on course codes to track how many students participate in WBL each semester. Tracking WBL outside of course credits is far more difficult, though many colleges are actively working to improve their data collection efforts. Colleges also rely on student and employer feedback surveys to gauge program quality and outcomes. Low response rates and survey fatigue among both students and employers was cited as a challenge to obtaining consistent data from these efforts. Nearly all respondents mentioned that limited funding is a serious barrier to robust data collection.
The report closes with recommendations. Both federal and state governments should develop a common definition of WBL and identify data elements that should be tracked. States would be wise to incorporate WBL into their longitudinal data systems. Community colleges should consider incentivizing employers and students to complete surveys to get consistent and reliable data. And philanthropies should provide funding that can build capacity among government agencies, colleges, and employers to help track outcomes. Overall, identifying strategies to assess participation, progress toward diversity and equity goals, and outcomes is vitally important.
Source: Shayne Spaulding, Ian Hecker, Emily Bramhall, “Expanding and Improving Work-Based Learning in Community Colleges,” Urban Institute (March 2020).