Pace University's Lubin School of Business puts structure and rigor around experiential learning
By Neil Braun
"It is not the strongest of species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one that is the most responsive to change." While mistakenly attributed to Charles Darwin, it was the late LSU business professor Leon C. Megginson who authored this assertion in 1963. Sufficiently congruous to be confused with Darwin's evolutionary theory, it was nonetheless prescient for higher education—and business schools in particular.
Today, a half century later, many colleges and universities are struggling to survive, faced with potentially catastrophic challenges on several fronts. Chief among these are rapidly expanding globalization and automation, claims of a growing skills gap—especially the soft skills necessary to succeed in a professional environment—reported by American employers, as well as unrelenting changes in technology that have already stretched many schools to the breaking point as they endeavor to equip students with hard skills that didn't exist as recently as a decade ago.
For colleges and universities that are agile, entrepreneurial, and skilled at adapting, this represents a powerful opportunity to address these challenges, revamp our curricula, and stand apart from our less nimble peers.
The Skills Gap
Despite rising college attendance, employers perceive a mismatch between what the higher education system is producing and what they need. An international survey conducted by McKinsey & Company found that while 72% of higher education institutions believe their graduates are adequately prepared for post-college success, only 42% of employers and 45% of graduates agree.
Employers hiring in 2013 noted that professionalism, communication, relationship building, and leadership were some of the key attributes lacking among recent college graduates. Graduates of four-year colleges surveyed by McKinsey & Company also listed the key areas where they feel particularly underprepared to meet employers' demands.
The attributes identified by both employers and recent graduates all relate to "professional effectiveness," the ability of employees to function well within an organization and to understand how to navigate both the organization they work for and their overall careers. Despite this emphasis by both employers and employees, there has been insufficient focus devoted by higher education to assisting students in developing such skills.
A Focus On Outcomes
On the heels of growing employer concern over job preparedness is an increasing emphasis on the outcomes of higher education. Traditionally, media rankings, test scores, and prestige factors have made up the primary selection criteria for prospective students. There is, however, a growing scrutiny of and efforts to publish higher-education outcomes for individual schools. Of particular interest to the public and others are graduation, job placement, and student loan default rates, as well as starting salaries.
Assessing the Return on Investment (ROI) of a business school degree as measured by employment or placement upon graduation would seem on the surface a better, more accurate measure of an institution's value proposition or overall academic quality. Still, it falls far short of being adequate, and comparatively little is being done to ensure that undergraduates completing their final year are, in fact, job-ready.
Building on Pace University's Legacy of Experiential Learning
New York's Pace University has a long-standing history of uniquely preparing its students for professional success. To advance this, in 2012 we commissioned a survey of admitted students and those requesting admission information and applications. The study found that enrolled students and prospective applicants alike were drawn by the university's "strong program" reputation that is so closely associated with career success and opportunities for experiential learning. It further revealed that higher education applicants are strongly motivated to apply to a school that offers the knowledge required to excel in a chosen field and includes experiences required for professional success. This affirms our emphasis on experiential and applied learning—the opportunity to apply classroom learning to real-life situations.
Over time, in a very organic way, Pace has developed a number of co-curricular activities that emphasize and encourage experiential and applied learning including the largest internship program in NYC. Students who took advantage of applying their classroom knowledge in real-life situations—whether it was an internship, research project, independent study, competitions or community service—demonstrated to be the most successful after graduation. But it is not enough to merely provide the opportunity for students to choose these activities. What was lacking was a comprehensive, intentional, rigorous program with outcomes clearly aligned with professional effectiveness.
The Lubin Professional Experience
To address this, we recently launched the "Lubin Professional Experience" (LPE), a one-of-a-kind, integrated program focused on giving students high impact learning experiences that will prepare them for a professional career. The key is not just academic learning, but educating the whole person, and this is addressed by teaching a combination of hard and soft skills. On the "hard skills" side, Lubin students learn how to use relevant software programs that will be necessary for their first jobs—for example, certifications in Microsoft Excel and the Bloomberg workstation have been integrated into the curriculum. At the same time, on the "soft skills" side, students learn how to work effectively in groups, frame issues and present themselves as productive and reliable colleagues.
The LPE is focused on three key learning goals:
An important component is a comprehensive coaching infrastructure still in development to help students recognize the situational learning that is broadly applicable and build on their knowledge to become well-rounded, effective, ethical contributors in their offices, lives and communities.
The program was launched in the 2013–2014 academic year. Some of the LPE program features include:
The program begins freshman year with a course that uses the transition into college as a preview for transitions they will encounter in the future. In addition, a required one-credit course was developed for sophomore year. Career-centric topics covered include: career development theory and practice, self-assessment skills and business etiquette, resume writing and networking, interviewing, and professional attire. Though these topics have long been offered on an optional basis, the LPE assures that all students will receive this training.
Two "professional experiences" are an integral part of the program and students choose from a menu of these, including a required internship, on- or off-campus, and a second qualifying experience such as courses with rich team- or leadership-based components. Some examples of the courses include Lubin's Student-Managed Investment Portfolio (up 39% for calendar 2013 and outperforming the Dow Jones, S&P 500, and NASDAQ indices), Advertising Team Workshop, and Travel and Tourism management classes. Courses typically qualify if they are dedicated to professional development and teach real-world skills with professional-caliber deliverables.
In addressing the needs gap cited by employers, best practices in professional standards have been implemented in all Lubin classes. These include class attendance and time management, class preparation and participation, presentation skills, and timely submission of quality work.
We are now developing a comprehensive program that integrates hands-on learning into the college experience for students in all disciplines. The new program will build on the success of the experiential learning that is already happening throughout the university. Beyond the traditional discipline-based outcomes, the university-wide program will identify and build into the curricula the intended learning outcomes that are critical for success after graduation.
As Professor Megginson said, those that are the most responsive to change will survive. As the value proposition of higher education is debated on a national level, and with students graduating without the professional tools they need to succeed, it would be a disservice to our institutions and our students not to adapt to the changes that are occurring at an accelerating pace.